Official Misconduct Sentencing Downgrades (Part 1)

by | Jun 5, 2020 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On March 18, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Essex County case of State v. Orlando Trinidad. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1 was whether the circumstances supported the sentencing downgrade of the second degree official misconduct conviction.

Justice Timpone wrote for the unanimous court in relevant part: The Criminal Code allows a sentencing judge to downgrade a first- or second-degree offense where “the mitigating factors substantially outweigh the aggravating factors and where the interest of justice demands.” N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(f)(2) (emphasis added); accord State v. Megargel, (1996) (“The sentencing judge must be (1) clearly convinced that the mitigating factors substantially outweigh the aggravating factors and (2) the interest of justice must demand the downgrade.”). Accordingly, downgrading, while not required, is appropriate where both prongs of the statutory test are satisfied.

While the Code does not define the “interest of justice,” we have noted it is a high bar, requiring “compelling” reasons for a downgrade. In Megargel, we delineated several factors relevant to that determination. Generally, the reasons that compel a downgrade must be in addition to, and separate from, the mitigating factors. Id. at 502. As the focus of the inquiry is on the offense rather than the offender, “the most single important factor” is the severity of the crime. Id. at 500. Determining a crime’s severity involves consideration of the “factual circumstances,” including whether the defendant’s crime was “similar to a lower degree offense, thus suggesting that a downgraded sentence may be appropriate.” Ibid. The defendant’s role in the crime is also relevant. Id. at 501 (“Was the defendant the mastermind, a loyal follower, an accomplice whose shared intent is problematic, or an individual who is mentally incapable of forming the necessary criminal intent?”). We further consider the sentence from the perspective of deterrence. Ibid. And, finally, we hesitate to downgrade where the Legislature has provided an enhanced penalty for a particular offense. Id. at 502.

The inquiry regarding whether an individual was “incapable of forming the necessary criminal intent” is illogical. If they were legally incapable of forming the required intent, they would not have been convicted of the offense for which they were sentenced.