On August 6, 2019, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the case of State v. William Liepe. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-5 was whether three consecutive sentences and an aggregate 32-year term for vehicular homicide and assault shocked the judicial conscience and required reversal. Justice Patterson wrote for a unanimous Court.
She held in relevant part: In this appeal, the Appellate Division held that our decisions in Carey and Molina did not establish a presumption in favor of consecutive sentences in cases involving alcohol-related accidents in which multiple victims are killed or seriously injured. We agree.
A presumption “is a conclusion that the law directs must be drawn,” or a “mandatory inference that discharges the burden of producing evidence as to a fact (the presumed fact) when another fact (the basic fact) has been established.” This Court has adopted presumptions in clear and unmistakable language in various settings. See, e.g., In re Keri (2004) (“establishing a presumption in favor of spend-down proposals” permitting “self-sufficient adult children who serve as their incompetent parents’ legal guardians” to “transfer to themselves all or part of their parents’ assets in order to hasten their parents’ eligibility for Medicaid benefits”); Coffman v. Keene Corp., (1993) (“We now hold that . . . in a product-liability case based on a failure to warn, the plaintiff should be afforded the use of the presumption that he or she would have followed an adequate warning had one been provided.”)
There is no such language in N.J.S.A. 2C:44-5 or our case law. When the Court held in Carey that, in vehicular homicide cases in which more than one victim has been killed or seriously injured, “the multiple-victims factor” should “ordinarily result in the imposition of at least two consecutive terms,” it did not impose a presumption in favor of consecutive terms. It simply observed that when a sentencing court compares the harm inflicted by intoxicated driving in the multiple-victim setting with the harm that would have resulted from the offense were there only a single victim, it is likely to conclude that the harm in the former setting is “distinctively worse” than that in the latter. See id. at 428. As the Court did “not adopt a per se rule” of consecutive sentences in cases such as this, id. at 419, it adopted no presumption governing such cases. Like any Yarbough analysis, the sentencing court’s determination regarding consecutive and concurrent terms in the vehicular homicide setting turns on a careful evaluation of the specific case.
There is no codified presumption in favor of consecutive sentences in cases like this. However, Yarbough requires that the Court account for whether or not there were multiple victims, even in cases of accidental assaults. Thus, there remains an informal presumption in favor of consecutive sentences.