On March 23, 2018, a three-judge appellate panel decided the Somerset County case of State v. Amy Locane. The principal issue was whether the sentencing court abused its discretion in downgrading the defendant’s second-degree vehicular homicide conviction to third-degree when the court credited the defendant’s recent sobriety and potential hardship on her children, as opposed to focusing on the severity of the crime.
The Appellate Division held in relevant part: Having decided that defendant’s constitutional rights are not violated by reversal of the downgrade, we consider whether it was legally justified. A sentencing court may downgrade a first- or second-degree offense to one degree less for sentencing purposes. The relevant statute provides:
In cases of convictions for crimes of the first or second degree where the court is clearly convinced that the mitigating factors substantially outweigh the aggravating factors and where the interest of justice demands, the court may sentence the defendant to a term appropriate to a crime of one degree lower than that of the crime for which he was convicted. To warrant a downgrade, the court must first find that the mitigating factors substantially outweigh the aggravating factors. Second, the court must find that there are “compelling” reasons” in addition to, and separate from,” the mitigating factors, which require the downgrade in the interest of justice. State v. Jones, (App. Div. 1984).
Trial courts often confuse the standards for downgrading a sentence and finding a manifest injustice that justifies probation in lieu of jail for a first or second-degree offense. Sentencing downgrades mean that the defendant will serve a lesser period of state prison incarceration. The latter finding calls for defendants to be spared state prison altogether and sentenced to probation for a first or second-degree crime. A finding of a manifest injustice permits the sentencing court to focus on the offender, as opposed to the offense. Our Appellate Division and Supreme Court have only upheld manifest injustice findings in cases in which the defendant suffers from severe mental impairment.