Can My Sentence be Made Harsher After-the-Fact?

(16-04-1150 ) State v. Hester, App. Div. (Decided March 23, 2017)

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Defense Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

4 cases were recently consolidated for review by New Jersey Appellate Division. In each of the matters, an issue arose of whether it was a violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause of New Jersey’s Constitution for the legislature to pass a law that retroactively increased the penalty for violating a term of a special sentence of community supervision for life (CSL).

Prior to the passage of the statute in question, a violation of CSL (Community Supervision for Life, Magan’s Law) was a 4th degree crime with a maximum of 18 months exposure to state prison time. After the passage of the amended statute, a violation of CSL became a 3rd degree crime with a substantially increased maximum of 5 years exposure to state prison time. Each of the defendants in the case already, prior to the passage of the statute, had been sentenced to a CSL sentence. At the time of their sentencing, before the amendments to the statute were adopted, the court told them that a violation would constitute a new separate 4th degree crime.

In other words, the 2014 amended law substantially increased the state prison exposure of those individuals, like all of these defendants, who had previously committed a predicate crime and had received Community Supervision for Life through parole as part of Magan’s Law. Thus, the 2014 amended law made more burdensome the punishment for the commission of the predicate crimes defendants committed before 2014. Defendants, who had been sentenced to CSL before the effective date of the 2014 amended law, were now subject to a prison term of three to five years, instead of eighteen months. Essentially, the legislature changed the defendants’ sentences after the sentences were final, which implicated the Ex Post Facto Clause of the New Jersey Constitution.

To violate the Ex Post Facto Clauses, the statute in question must either (1) punish as a crime an act previously committed, which was innocent when done; (2) make more burdensome the punishment for a crime, after its commission; or (3) deprive a defendant of any defense available according to the law at the time when the crime was committed. State v. Muhammad, 145 N.J. 23, 56 (1996).

The issue in all of these case came down to whether the term “crime” meant 1) the predicate offense that lead to a CSL sentence, or 2) whether the violation of the CSL sentence was considered the “crime.” If it was the predicate crime, then the law would be unconstitutional because the crime was already committed. If, on the other hand, the violation of CSL was considered the “crime” then there was no crime previously committed, and the legislature would be allowed to change the violation from a fourth degree crime to one of third degree.

The Appellate Court ruled that the term “crime” meant the predicate offense that lead to a CSL sentence. Because the amended law retroactively increased defendants’ punishment for committing their predicate crimes by raising the degree of the CSL violations from a fourth degree to a third degree, and subjecting them to extended prison terms, the Ex Post Facto provision was violated and the statute was found to be unconstitutional.

Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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