On October 30, 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Union County case of State v. Rainlin Vasco. The principal issue was whether the defendant’s guilty plea to fourth degree unlawful possession of a weapon was supported by an adequate factual basis when he stated during the colloquy that he did not have a lawful purpose for possessing a knife but did not admit to any specific circumstances that made the possession “manifestly inappropriate”. The Court issued a “per curiam” opinion, meaning that no particular Justice authored the decision because the court agreed that the case involved a straightforward application of the law to the facts of the case. Therefore, there was no occasion for s particular justice to conduct their own legal analysis.
Here, a unanimous Court reversed the opinion of the three-judge appellate panel for the reasons expressed by the one dissenting judge, Judge Espinosa. This is likely a source of pride for Judge Espinosa as she took a position contrary to the majority of her panel and her minority position was unanimously adopted by the New Jersey Supreme Court.
The per curiam opinion and Judge Espinosa’s related dissent read in relevant part as follows: The judgment of the Superior Court, Appellate Division is reversed substantially for the reasons expressed in Judge Espinosa’s dissenting opinion, reported at ___ N.J. Super. ___, ___ (App. Div. 2017) (Espinosa, J.A.D., dissenting). Defendant’s guilty plea is vacated and the matter is remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.
The essential elements of an offense under N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(d) are (1) there was a weapon, (2) defendant possessed the weapon knowingly, and (3) the defendant’s possession of the weapon was under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for a lawful use. Model Jury Charge (Criminal), “Unlawful Possession of a Weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d” (2005).
During the course of his plea colloquy, defendant admitted he knowingly possessed a weapon. He admitted little else. In the first attempted plea colloquy, he stated, “I had a lawful purpose, like, I didn’t want to do anything unlawful. I just possessed it.”