State v. Chris Thomas, N.J. (2006)
Docket No. A-43-05
State v. Maurice Pierce, N.J. (2006)
Docket. No. A-18-05
Held: In these consolidated appeals, the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the Code’s extended term statutes for persistent offenders, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-3a, and repeat drug offenders, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6f, are constitutional under the United States Supreme Court decision in Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004).
In Thomas, the Court unanimously found that a sentencing court may constitutionally find as fact the existence of a prior conviction for purposes of determining a defendant’s eligibility for a mandatory extended term under the repeat drug offender statute. The Court also addressed the use of prior convictions as a basis to find that aggravating factors (3) and (9) support the imposition of a pre-Natale II sentence above the presumptive term, an issue left unresolved in State v. Abdullah, 184 N.J. 497 (2005). The Court construed the Blakely prior conviction exception narrowly, and held that judicial fact-finding must be limited to the finding of the prior conviction’s existence. Thus, defendants who were sentenced prior to Natale to a sentence above the presumptive term on the basis of any aggravating factors, including (3), (6) or (9), are entitled to a remand for resentencing. The Court further explained that post-Natale sentencing practice will permit sentencing courts to find all aggravating factors, whether or not based “exclusively” on the fact of a prior conviction.
In Pierce, a majority of the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the discretionary persistent offender extended term statute. The Court found that a sentencing judge, rather than a jury, can constitutionally consider under Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), and Blakely the objective facts about a defendant’s prior convictions, such as date of convictions, his or her age when the offenses were committed, and the elements and degrees of the offenses, to determine whether the statutory requirements for an extended term are satisfied.
The Court further determined that the “need to protect the public” finding, which in State v. Dunbar, 108 N.J. 80 (1987), it imposed to guide the trial courts in sentencing a defendant to a discretionary extended term, was no longer a precondition to a defendant’s eligibility for such a term. Instead, the Court determined that the “protection of the public” finding is “no different from judicial findings as to aggravating factors.” Therefore, sentencing courts may consider it when assessing the appropriate length of a defendant’s base extended term as part of the court’s finding and weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors.
The Court also restated the extended-term sentencing procedures established in Dunbar and held that, on an application for a persistent offender extended term sentence, the trial court must first review defendant’s criminal record of convictions to determine whether he or she is statutorily eligible. If so, the maximum sentence to which defendant may be subject is the top of the extended-term range. The court must then determine the appropriate sentence, within the expanded range of sentences available from the bottom of the ordinary-term range to the top of the extended-term range, by assessing the aggravating and mitigating factors, including the deterrent need to protect the public. The Court adopted the remedy used in Natale I and determined that Pierce was entitled to a remand for re-sentencing “but only in respect of reconsideration of the appropriate sentence for defendant within the expanded range of sentences available from the bottom of the ordinary- term to the top of the extended-term range.”