Successful Appeal of Sentencing Downgrade

by | Sep 24, 2016 | Appeals, Blog, Criminal Law, Judge and Jury

On August 26, 2016, the Appellate Division upheld the decision of the Ocean County Criminal Presiding judge to impose a downgraded sentence in State v. Deborah Meehan. This was a case that I handled over many years at the trial level. While the State may attempt to appeal the Appellate Division decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the fact that the Appellate Division’s opinion was a “per curiam” decision makes it very unlikely that the Supreme court would even consider the State’s appeal, let alone reverse the trial and appellate courts that sided with the defense.

When a decision is “per curiam” as opposed to being personally authored by one of the appellate judges, the indication is that the result is a straightforward application of the law as opposed to an opinion in which one of the appellate judges had to conduct a detailed analysis. Thus, “per curiam” decisions are unlikely to be overturned.

Here, the State appealed the trial court’s decision to downgrade the sentence from one in the second degree range to the third degree range. Such a downgrade is very rare, as judge’s are required to stay within the sentencing ranges created by the Legislature absent the most compelling of circumstances. Here, I was able to convince the trial court that these circumstances existed and my reasoning was affirmed on appeal. Had we not prevailed on appeal, my client would have been forced to go back to prison to serve the remainder of an extended sentence.

The first step in getting the downgraded sentence was to convince the trial judge that the mitigating factors substantially outweighed the aggravating factors at sentencing. Those findings were affirmed on appeal. With regard to the seminal case addressing sentencing downgrades, my analysis was adopted nearly verbatim by the Appellate Division.

“There are distinctions between this matter and Jones, which were identified by the trial judge in his opinion. Importantly, this was trial and not a plea agreement.  Accordingly, the trial judge had the unique opportunity to fully consider all of the facts surrounding defendant’s crime and evaluate those facts when he imposed a state prison term. By the time defendant was resentenced, she resolved her drug abuse and engaged psychological counseling, thus eliminating influences that contributed to her first and only criminal act. She obtained her GED, secured employment and was satisfying her restitution obligation.

In Jones, the judge “desired to rehabilitate theDefendant”; here, defendant demonstrated she had rehabilitated her life. Also, defendant is the sole financial support for her spouse. Her re-incarceration would impose significant hardship upon him because defendant would lose her employment and likely their home. Also, defendant suffers from some physical and mental illnesses which she currently treats. Incarceration would disrupt her ongoing treatment. Finally, defendant was incarcerated for 729 days, a period that exceeded the eighteen-month parole ineligibility period, generally accompanying a five-year prison term. The judge noted re-incarceration under circumstances where parole eligibility had already been achieved, which would also trigger loss of employment and hardship to defendant’s spouse, was “unduly cruel.”

When the stated facts are weighed with the nature of the offense, which was a property crime as opposed to a crime involving weapons, violence, or physical injury, and when the goal of protecting the public has been achieved by defendant’s demonstrated rehabilitation, we cannot agree with the State’s argument that the trial judge abused his discretion in downgrading the sentence imposed. We conclude the findings adequately satisfy the “interest of justice” standard by stating compelling reasons to sentence defendant in the lower range. As the Court instructed in Roth: Our new Code reflects a delicate balance between discretion and fixed sentencing. An independent judiciary is its fulcrum. When conscientious trial judges exercise discretion in accordance with the principles set forth in the Code and defined by us today, they need fear no second-guessing.”