Aggravated Assault and Defense of Others: Part 3

by | Mar 2, 2018 | Blog, Criminal Law, New Jersey, Violent Crimes

We recognize that an inadequate factual basis does not necessarily entitle a defendant to relief upon a collateral attack of a conviction. “If a guilty plea is knowing and voluntary, a court’s failure to elicit a factual basis for the plea is not necessarily of constitutional dimension and thus does not render illegal a sentence imposed without such basis.”

However, a contemporaneous claim of innocence alters the legal significance of the lack of factual basis. “A factual basis is constitutionally required when there are indicia, such as a contemporaneous claim of innocence, that the defendant does not understand enough about the nature of the law as it applies to the facts of the case to make a truly ‘voluntary’ decision on his own.”

Our appellate courts are inclined to avoid making more work for themselves and trial courts. The holding that “a factual basis is not constitutionally required unless the defendant accompanies the plea with a claim of innocence” is rooted in a preference to keep guilty pleas final. Given the shear number of criminal cases that resolve through guilty pleas, there will inevitably be attorneys and judges that overlook a required element of an offense. Thus, we have a rule that requires more than these common mistakes before a resolved case will be re-opened.

Defendant’s suggested defense of others constituted a contemporaneous claim of innocence that negated his guilt. Since the trial court failed to explore defendant’s claimed defense, and failed to secure a knowing and intelligent waiver after an appropriate explication of applicable law, it cannot be said his plea was voluntary and knowing, and violated due process.

Therefore, without the necessity of reaching defendant’s remaining arguments, we reverse the denial of PCR. Defendant’s plea and conviction shall be vacated. His prior pre-conviction bail status shall be restored, pending trial court review within thirty days. The matter is remanded for trial.