Vehicular Homicide Sentencing Downgrades (Part 2)

by | Jun 6, 2018 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

The Locane appellate panel continued: The focus remains on the crime, as the downgrade statute “is an offense-oriented provision.” State v. Lake, (App. Div. 2009). Where the “surrounding circumstances of an offense make it very similar to a lower degree offense, a downgraded sentence may be appropriate.” See Megargel, explaining that a downgrade from first- to second-degree robbery may be justified where the defendant does not have a weapon but “simulates having a gun by placing his hand in his pocket”.

The sentencing court may also consider the “characteristics or behavior of the offender” but only to the extent “they relate to the offense itself and give fuller context to the offense circumstances.” Lake; see also State v. L.V., (App. Div. 2009) (downgrading where the defendant’s mental illnesses, young age, “very limited intelligence,” cognitive inabilities, language and social barriers, years of having been sexually abused and threatened by her father and having been twice impregnated by him explained why she had acquiesced to his order to throw her newborn infant out of a window). The interest of justice analysis does not include consideration of defendant’s overall character or contributions to the community.

“The paramount reason we focus on the severity of the crime is to assure the protection of the public and the deterrence of others. The higher the degree of the crime, the greater the public need for protection and the more need for deterrence.” Where the crime includes an enhanced penalty, the Legislature has declared the crime especially serious, thus elevating the need for deterrence. “Under such circumstances, trial courts must exercise extreme caution” before ordering a downgrade.

In reaching its decision, the sentencing court must first find that the mitigating factors substantially preponderate. If they do, then the judge must determine whether separate compelling reasons specific to the nature of the offense compel the downgrade in the interest of justice.

Trial courts are thus required to make specific and detailed findings before an appellate court will uphold a sentencing downgrade. It is a lack of detail and specificity that often leads to multiple rounds of cases like theses being reversed and remanded for additional fact-finding. Appellate Courts very rarely exercise original jurisdiction in imposing their own sentence since they will only have a paper record of the defendant at issue.