On April 19, 2018, the Appellate Division decided the Warren County case of State v. A.T.C. The principal issue before the Court was the constitutionality of the mandatory sentencing provisions under the “Jessica Lunsford Act” that only permits the trial court to accept or reject a prosecutor’s negotiated plea agreement.
The three-judge panel held in relevant part: Defendant further argues the mandatory sentencing provisions of the JLA violate the separation of powers clause of the New Jersey Constitution, N.J. Const. art. III, ¶ 1, and unconstitutionally impair the State’s right to engage in plea bargaining. We disagree.
The separation of powers clause states, “the powers of the government shall be divided among three distinct branches, the legislative, executive, and judicial. No person or persons belonging to or constituting one branch shall exercise any of the powers properly belonging to either of the others, except as expressly provided in this Constitution. However, the fact that the actions of one branch will affect the exercise of power in another branch does not invalidate those actions as violative of the principles of separation of powers.”
“It is within the sole power of the legislature to determine what acts constitute crime and to prescribe punishment for those acts.” State v. Todd (App. Div. 1990). As we recognized in State v. Oliver, our courts have consistently held that the determination of penalties for crimes is a legislative function, not a judicial one. A trial court does not have the right to do whatever it pleases. The court’s discretion in sentencing is limited by the sentencing ranges given to it by the Legislature. Furthermore, it is within the power of the Legislature to provide the minimum and maximum terms of a sentence.
“For example, the Legislature may enact mandatory sentencing statutes which serve to restrict a court’s sentencing decision.” Generally, “whatever discretion courts are given, the basic legislative design must govern.” State v. Lopez, (App. Div. 2007). “The judiciary has no power . . . to mete out a punishment in excess of that prescribed by the Legislature or to lessen or reduce a sentence where the Legislature has provided a mandatory penalty.” State v. Bausch (1980) (citations omitted).
The last citation is a bit of an over-statement. Trial Courts do have the power to reject a mandatory penalty if its imposition would be a manifest injustice. This is an extremely narrow power that is to be exercised in the rarest of circumstances. Almost all of the cases that have upheld the exercise of this power on appeal involved defendants with mental handicaps that were so severe that they did not recognize the nature of their actions.