A Defendant Cannot Be Subject to Enhanced Sentencing Outside the Negotiated Plea Agreement Based on New Charges Alone
Appellate Docket No.: A-1008-20
Decided June 24, 2022
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
In a recent published opinion, the Appellate Division of New Jersey reversed a defendant’s enhanced sentencing after the State withdrew from the original plea agreement and recommended sentencing after defendant incurred new charges while pending sentencing in the underlying case.
In State v. Cambrelen, in August 2020, while detained pretrial, defendant Jaime Cambrelen pled guilty to first-degree unlawful possession of a handgun by a person previously convicted of a NERA crime, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(j), charged in a twenty-three count Atlantic County indictment. The same indictment charged three codefendants with various offenses arising from the shooting death of Bernard Murphy. Defendant was not charged with homicide-related offenses.
During his plea allocution, defendant admitted he “c[a]me into possession of a handgun” on October 17, 2019, on Florida Avenue in Atlantic City, when he “picked it off the ground.”3 Defendant acknowledged he did not have a permit to carry the handgun and previously had been convicted of second-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(1), a NERA offense. Defendant also waived his rights to indictment and trial by jury, and pled guilty to Atlantic County Accusation No. 20-08-0539, charging him with fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(d), for possessing a shank while in jail pending trial.
Defendant acknowledged his understanding of the terms of the plea agreement. The court released defendant from custody for a thirty-day period “to allow him to make arrangements for his affairs” before serving his prison sentence, and imposed several conditions of release, including that defendant “commit no new offenses.” The court reiterated the impact of violating a condition of his release or committing a new offense; defendant again acknowledged his understanding of the potential ramifications.
On September 22, 2020, two days before his scheduled sentencing, defendant was arrested and charged with multiple drug and weapons offenses, including first-degree possession of heroin with intent to distribute, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(b)(1). The charges arose from a motor vehicle stop in Atlantic City.
According to the affidavit of probable cause supporting the complaint warrant, defendant was lying in the rear seat when the car was stopped. The driver did not possess a valid driver’s license and could not provide police with the name of the owner. Police observed the odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle, and a clear plastic baggie containing what appeared to be crack cocaine in the center console cup holder. A search of the car yielded a handgun in the glove compartment and large quantities of drugs in the trunk.
After defendant’s September 22, 2020 arrest, the State withdrew its sentencing recommendation, moved for a discretionary extended term as a persistent offender under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-3(a), on the first-degree weapons offense, and argued for a twenty-year prison sentence with a parole disqualifier of ten years under the Graves Act. Maintaining his innocence on the “constructive possession-type” new charges, defendant opposed the State’s motion and moved for sentencing in accordance with the terms of the plea agreement.
Following argument at the October 26, 2020 sentencing hearing, the trial court first determined defendant’s arrest on new charges violated the terms of the plea agreement, and permitted the State to withdraw its sentencing recommendation. Although the court recognized “defendant [wa]s merely charged” and “maintain[ed] his innocence on those charges,” the court found “probable cause to believe that [defendant] committed those offenses based on the complaint-warrant, his current status, and detention on those charges.”
Defendant appealed, seeking to remand for resentencing under the ten-year prison term with forty-two-month parole disqualifier. The Appellate Division found that a provision in a plea agreement providing for an increased sentence, or allowing the State to seek same from the Court, violates the Constitution. The proper remedy for new charges during the pendency of sentencing is to vacate the plea agreement and allow the parties to negotiate a new plea agreement in light of the pending charges.
This case is important to understand that plea agreements resolve the majority of criminal charges in New Jersey. There are many Constitutional considerations in plea agreements as well as sentencing afterwards. New charges incurred could have an impact on both the plea agreement and sentencing, as outlined above. However, this case provides that a defendant cannot be subject to enhanced sentencing outside the negotiated plea agreement based on new charges alone.
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