The Tolling of Statutes of Limitations (Part 7)

by | Sep 22, 2018 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

NERA uses the term “actor” in a wholly distinct framework to achieve underlying policy goals separate from those of the DNA-tolling provision. As the Appellate Division in Rumblin observed, it is apparent that “actor” includes both principals and accomplices in the NERA context because “the Legislature would not have intended that the mastermind of an armed robbery could avoid the consequences of NERA sentencing by having a confederate carry out the crime.” Within NERA, an “actor” plainly encompasses both principals and accomplices as both are co-defendants, and a co-defendant cannot escape sentencing liability simply by operating as an accomplice. For NERA purposes, then, “actor” includes accomplices because any narrower reading would undercut the State’s ability to sentence equally culpable defendants.

NERA’s use of “actor” peacefully coexists with statutes of limitations because it is not triggered until the sentencing phase of criminal proceedings, at the back end of the judicial process. For NERA purposes, the State has already initiated criminal proceedings within the applicable statute of limitations. NERA is not influenced by stale-evidence concerns because it is triggered only after a defendant’s trial or guilty plea.

In contrast, the DNA-tolling provision creates an exception at the front end of the judicial process by permitting criminal prosecutions outside of the generally prescribed statute of limitations. N.J.S.A. 2C:1-6(c). Public policy supports such belated prosecutions because the reliability of the DNA connection to a specific individual has led the Legislature to decide that the general statute of limitations must give way.

The hallmark of a statute of limitations is that it avoids unfairly forcing a criminally accused individual to defend against stale evidence. DNA evidence works to implicate a single individual. After that, all the usual issues of stale evidence resurface when the DNA-identified individual begins implicating others. For that reason, this Court’s discussion of “actor” in Rumblin to include principals and accomplices under NERA is simply inapplicable to the DNA-tolling provision.

In Twiggs, the DNA-tolling exception does not apply. The State’s DNA evidence only tangentially connected Twiggs to the charged crime; its primary evidence against Twiggs was Tracy’s testimony. The statute of limitations tolled only against Tracy and expired on Twiggs’s charges. We find that the trial court correctly dismissed the indictment in Twiggs.

The Court’s opinion highlights the need for enhanced safeguards to prevent tampering with DNA evidence. In those cases where tampering occurs, the evidence reliability concerns do not apply. However, the accused is still forced to defend against stale evidence.