Official Misconduct Sentencing Downgrades (Part 3)

by | Jun 9, 2020 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County, Uncategorized

Justice Timpone continued in relevant part: We emphasize that Trinidad played a central role in the incident. The record shows he personally assaulted Jeter, lied in official reports to cover up his crimes, and similarly instructed Sutterlin to falsify reports. By finding him guilty on all counts, the jury implicitly rejected Trinidad’s contention that Jeter provoked him. Accordingly, there was no “immense stress” necessitating the commission of these crimes. A downgrade would have been inappropriate here.

Lastly, while we recognize Trinidad’s finances and reputation have likely suffered, the Legislature’s imposition of a mandatory custodial sentence for second-degree official misconduct reflects its belief that imprisonment is necessary as a matter of general deterrence. It also underscores the Legislature’s view that this is a serious crime. Based on the foregoing, we find no compelling circumstances to override that legislative determination. We agree with the judge’s refusal to downgrade Trinidad’s sentence and discern no abuse of discretion.

Relatedly, a court may waive or reduce a mandatory minimum term for crimes involving public employment “if the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that extraordinary circumstances exist such that imposition of a mandatory minimum term would be a serious injustice which overrides the need to deter such conduct in others.” N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6.5(c)(2) (emphasis added). The “serious injustice” threshold is higher than the showing necessary to downgrade an offense.

The inquiry focuses on whether the mitigating factors are “extraordinary,” such that “they so greatly exceed any aggravating factors that imprisonment would constitute a serious injustice overriding the need for deterrence.” State v. Evers (2003). We also consider “the gravity of the offense with respect to the peculiar facts of a case to determine how paramount deterrence will be in the equation.” Id. at 395. There is a presumption of valuable deterrence in a custodial term for first- and second-degree offenders. Ibid.

We have found the serious injustice standard satisfied where a psychotic woman with a severe intellectual disability accidentally killed her son by dropping him twice on a coffee table. State v. Jarbath, (1989). We reasoned that she could not comprehend the “wrongfulness” of her conduct, thereby eliminating any specific deterrence gained from her imprisonment. Id. at 406. Her case was also unlikely to deter others from neglecting parental or childcare responsibilities based on her unique level of culpability and mental disabilities. Id. at 405-06. Furthermore, we highlighted that, due to her limitations, she could not “endure life in prison without unusual suffering, that is, hardship and privation greatly exceeding that which would be accepted and endured by ordinary inmates as the inevitable consequences of punishment.” Id. at 409; see also State v. E.R., (App. Div. 1994) (affirming resentencing of defendant to no custodial term where he had AIDS and his death was imminent within six months).

Downgrading a sentence involves sentencing a second-degree offender to three to five years of imprisonment as opposed to the standard five to ten years.  The “serious injustice” standard for sparing a first or second-degree offender from any prison and sentencing them to probation is a much higher threshold. The case law supporting probation in these very rare cases all involved defendants facing imminent death or the most severe mental handicaps.