NJ Supreme Court Strikes Down Megan’s Law Amendment as Ex Post Facto Law

In State v. Hester, A-91-16/079228 (Decided May 30, 2018),the Supreme Court of New Jersey struck down 2014 amendments to the Violent Predator Incapacitation Act (VPIA), which is part of Megan’s Law. The state’s highest court found that the amendments violated the Ex Post Facto Clauses of the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions because they enhanced the punishments for defendants’ violations of the terms of their supervised release,

Legal Background of State v. Hester

The U.S. Constitution and the New Jersey Constitutions prohibit the State from passing an “ex post facto law.” An ex post facto law is one that applies to events occurring before its enactment and disadvantages the offender affected by it. A retroactive law that merely effects a procedural change to a statutory scheme will fall outside of the constitutional prohibition. Meanwhile, a law that retroactively imposes additional punishment to an already completed crime disadvantages a defendant, and therefore is a prohibited ex post facto law.

Facts of State v. Hester

Under the Violent Predator Incapacitation Act (VPIA), a defendant convicted of certain sex offenses is required to serve a special sentence of community supervision for life (CSL). As a result of their sex-offense convictions, Defendants Melvin Hester, Mark Warner, Anthony McKinney, and Linwood Roundtree were required to serve a special sentence of community supervision for life after completion of their prison terms.  The commission of their offenses, the judgments of their convictions, and the commencement of their sentences all preceded amendments to the VPIA that took effect on July 1, 2014 (2014 Amendment).

Prior to the 2014 Amendment, a violation of the terms of CSL was punishable as a

fourth-degree crime.  The 2014 Amendment increased a CSL violation to a third-degree crime punishable by a presumptive term of imprisonment, and such a violation converted CSL to parole supervision for life (PSL). Unlike CSL, PSL authorizes the New Jersey Parole Board to revoke an offender’s supervised release for a PSL violation and to return the offender to prison. 

After enactment of the 2014 Amendment, all four defendants allegedly violated the terms of their CSL.  They were indicted for committing third-degree offenses and faced the increased penalties provided by that Amendment.  The trial courts presiding over defendants’ cases concluded that the 2014 Amendment’s enhanced penalties, as applied to defendants, violated the Ex Post Facto Clauses of the United States and New Jersey Constitutions and dismissed the indictments. The Appellate Division affirmed.

New Jersey Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Hester

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the indictments against the defendants. It agreed that the Federal and State Ex Post Facto Clauses bar the retroactive application of the 2014 Amendment to defendants’ CSL violations.

“The 2014 Amendment retroactively increased the punishment for defendants’ earlier committed sex offenses by enhancing the penalties for violations of the terms of their supervised release,” the court explained. “The Amendment, therefore, is an ex post facto law that violates our Federal and State Constitutions as applied to defendants.”

In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court highlighted that the present case was not substantively different from State v. Perez, 220 N.J. 423 (2015), where the court held that the 2003 Amendment to N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6.4, which retroactively altered a defendant’s status from CSL to PSL, exposed a defendant to an increased punishment for a violation of supervised release, and therefore contravened the Federal and State Ex Post Facto Clauses. 

“In effect, the 2014 Amendment materially altered defendants’ prior sentences to their disadvantage – increasing to a third-degree crime a violation of the terms of their supervised release and converting their CSL to PSL, thus empowering the Parole Board to return them to prison for a violation, such as failing to report a change of address,” the court wrote. “The 2014 Amendment effected not a simple procedural change but rather one that offends the very principles animating the Ex Post Facto Clauses of our Federal and State Constitutions.”

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