On January 21, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Middlesex County case of State v. Amrit Singh. The principal issues concerned whether a detective’s trial testimony violated N.J.R.E. 701 concerning lay opinion and whether any violation required reversal of the defendant’s convictions.
Justice Fernandez-Vina wrote for the 4-3 majority in relevant part: The Court considers whether it was plain error for the trial court to allow the detective to make two references to “the defendant” in narrating the surveillance footage of a robbery for the jury and whether the detective’s testimony concerning defendant’s sneakers violated N.J.R.E. 701, when the sneakers and the video were both admitted into evidence. In January 2015, a man entered a gas station store wielding a machete and told the cashier to give him the money. The man took the money and fled. The cashier described the man as wearing dark clothes and gloves. The events were captured on the gas station’s surveillance video, which police retrieved that night.
Officers dispatched to the scene noticed and chased an individual in dark clothing. After losing sight of the suspect, one of the officers found an individual — later identified as defendant — wearing dark clothing, sweating, and breathing heavily in a nearby backyard. Defendant resisted arrest. Detective Jorge Quesada, who also responded to the dispatch, joined the effort to subdue defendant. Investigators found a machete and the robbery proceeds in the area where defendant was arrested. Police recovered a sweatshirt, one glove, and sneakers with a white sole and stripes from defendant.
At defendant’s trial, the cashier narrated the gas station’s surveillance footage for the jury. Detective Quesada testified next, and he also narrated the footage, which he reviewed prior to testifying. During the narration, he referred to an individual depicted in the video as “the defendant” twice. Defense counsel did not object.
The failure of defense counsel to object changes the dynamic of the case on appeal. Our case law considers this decision to be “trial strategy” by default on appeal when there is no objection. That forces that defendant to wait until he exhausts his appeals before collaterally attacking his conviction through post-conviction relief (PCR). At a PCR hearing, the defendant can call his trial attorney as a witness to determine whether s/he rendered ineffective assistance that could warrant the reversal of his convictions. At that point, the defendant will likely have spent at least five years in prison while his case makes it way through our back-logged courts. Even if he is granted post-conviction relief, the prosecution can almost always get a retrial.