The Three Strikes Law and Juvenile Offenses (Part 3)

by | Apr 5, 2022 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

Nor do defendant and amici’s arguments regarding legislative intent, the requirements of Miller and Zuber, or other constitutional principles militate in favor of vacating defendant’s sentence. Defendant attributes significance to the fact that the Legislature limited the definition of recidivists under the persistent offender statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-3(a), to defendants over the age of twenty-one who committed their three qualifying crimes after turning eighteen. He contends that this definition shows the Legislature could not have intended to allow juvenile-age offenses to be considered under the Three Strikes Law.

This argument is unavailing. The statute to which defendant points illustrates plainly that the Legislature knows how to establish a minimum age for predicate offenses. It chose to do so in the persistent offender statute, which was enacted in 1978 and has been amended on numerous occasions since then without alteration to the age requirement. Yet, despite its attention to the age limits for predicate offenses in the persistent offender statute, the Legislature did not include similar limits when it enacted the Three Strikes Law in 1995. See L. 1995, c. 126, § 2. Nor did it impose such limits when it modified the Three Strikes Law in 2003 to clarify that the strikes are established by date of the offense, not the date of the conviction, see L. 2003, c. 48, § 1, even though, by then, the statute had been applied for eight years without regard to the age at which the first or second strikes were committed.

It is the Legislature’s prerogative to impose a requirement in one context but not another; it is our duty to treat that distinction as meaningful. See, e.g.In re Registrant H.D., (2020) (“The PSL provisions demonstrate that the Legislature knows how to tie Megan’s Law requirements to non-Megan’s Law offenses when it chooses; it did not choose to do so in subsection (f).”). The persistent offender statute notably encompasses a wider range of graded offenses — first-, second-, and third-degree qualifying crimes — than the Three Strikes Law, which is limited to certain first-degree violent offenses. The difference in application of the two statutes reflects a deliberate choice by the Legislature to further designate those offenses covered under the Three Strikes Law as especially egregious and requiring the defendant’s incapacitation — even where one of the predicate offenses was committed by a juvenile. This Court will “neither rewrite a plainly written enactment of the Legislature nor presume that the Legislature intended something other than that expressed by way of the plain language.

In light of the numerous constitutional issues that the Court is often addressing with regard to poorly-drafted legislation, the majority’s reference to the Legislature’s “deliberate choice” is not persuasive. The point about the Three Strikes statute addressing more serious offenses then the Persistent Offender statute is a good, logical point.