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New Jersey’s Standard for Trying Juveniles as Adults

Posted by attorney Randolph Wolf

In a recent decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that prosecutors must make a greater showing in order to try juveniles as adults. In the case, three juveniles, aged 16 and 17, challenged a lower court’s decision granting the Middlesex Prosecutor’s Office’s request to try them as adults on charges of aggravated assault, robbery, and conspiracy. The juveniles were charged in connection with an attack on a Woodbridge man, who was struck in the back of the head from behind, kicked and robbed. If tried as adults, the juveniles faced up to 40 years in state prison.

Juvenile justice advocates have long fought to increase the standards used to try juveniles as adults. They argue that imprisoning juveniles as adults creates a permanent criminal record, making it difficult for young offenders to get a job or take out a loan. They also point out that juveniles in adult facilities are more likely to commit suicide or be physically and sexually abused. Prosecutors, on the other hand, argue thatthe threat of trying juveniles as adults is a better deterrent from committing future crimes.

In its decision, that Court held that, given the consequences of adult prosecutions, juveniles need only prove prosecutors abused their discretion when they ask to waive a case to adult court, rather than prove a "patent and gross" abuse of discretion. The court also held that prosecutors must discuss the nature of the offense, the maximum adult sentence, and explain why trying the juvenile as an adult would better deter that person, as well as others, from committing future crimes.

The Court’s decision acknowledges the negative consequences of putting young offenders in prison with adult criminals. Other courts have likewise grappled with the question of how to handle juvenile offenders. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court banned states from imposing mandatory life sentences on juveniles. New Jersey’s decision on this matter should prove to dramatically change the state’s juvenile justice system.

Invoking the Right to Counsel

When arresting or taking a suspect into custody, police are required to read them Miranda Rights. Miranda Rights are intended to remind the individual of their constitutional rights before being questioned by law enforcement. Those rights include: (1) the right to remain silent; and (2) the right to counsel. If law enforcement violated either of these rights, the evidence obtained from the resulting violation may be suppressed.

In a recent decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court analyzed whether a second interrogation of the defendant, made nine days after the defendant’s previous invocation of counsel, violated his rights to counsel. The defendant, John Wessells, was arrested as a suspect in a murder case. He initially waived his right to counsel and allowed officers to question him. During questioning, Wessells requested to consult an attorney. Offices ceased the interrogation and Wessells was released. Nine days later, offices arrested Wessells again. After being read his Miranda rights, Wessells waived his right to an attorney and admitted that he was present during the murder. Officers then charged him with first-degree conspiracy to commit murder.

Wessell’s attorney moved to suppress the confession, arguing that the officers violated Wessell’s invocation of the right to counsel. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed. The Court held that, “[O]nce the right to counsel was invoked, a suspect who consulted with an attorney had not suspended his prior invocation of his right to counsel, such that statements made during a second interrogation without counsel violated his previously-asserted constitutional right." The Court explained that, pursuant to Maryland v. Shatzer, law enforcement officers are required to wait 14 days before interrogating a suspect who previously invoked his right to counsel. Doing so will ensure that all coercive threats of custody have dissipated.

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