State v. Rodney J. Miles (A-72-15) (077035)
Argued January 4, 2017 -- Decided May 16, 2017
Timpone, J., writing for a majority of the Court.
In this appeal, the Court clarifies the methodology to be used in analyzing whether two offenses are the “same offense” for double jeopardy purposes. Since the 1980s, New Jersey courts have applied both the same-evidence test and the same-elements test articulated in Blockburger v. United States, 284 U.S. 299 (1932), in double jeopardy determinations. A finding that offenses met either test resulted in double jeopardy protection for the defendant.
In October 2010, the Camden County police arrested defendant for selling marijuana to an undercover police officer. Defendant was charged in a warrant complaint with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and possession of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) with intent to distribute on or within 1000 feet of a school property. In a separate municipal summons, defendant was charged with the disorderly-persons offense of possession of fifty grams or less of marijuana. Those charges arose from the same attempted sale.
A grand jury returned an indictment charging defendant with the offenses in the warrant complaint. Defendant then appeared pro se in municipal court to resolve the disorderly-persons offense. At some point before that video proceeding, the original municipal charge was amended to a different disorderly-persons offense—loitering to possess marijuana. Defendant asked the municipal court judge, “why they got me going to Superior Court for this, Your Honor?” The judge then responded that defendant was “not going to Superior Court for this,” but rather for an unrelated child support issue. Defendant then pled guilty to loitering to possess marijuana.
Thereafter, defendant moved to dismiss the Superior Court indictment on double-jeopardy grounds, arguing that prosecution on the possession charges was barred because he had already pled guilty to an offense that arose from the same conduct. The Superior Court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss, reasoning that prosecution on the indicted charges was not barred because it required proof of an additional element—proximity to a school. Defendant pled guilty to possession of CDS with intent to distribute within 1000 feet of a school (the school-zone charge), but preserved his right to appeal the denial of the motion to dismiss.
On appeal, the Appellate Division remanded for a finding on the circumstances surrounding the amendment of the disorderly-persons offense. The panel noted that a plea to the original municipal charge, instead of the amended one, could have led to a different result after applying the double-jeopardy analysis.
On remand, the Superior Court found no direct evidence as to the circumstances surrounding the amendment, and the prosecutor represented that his office was not informed of defendant’s municipal court proceedings. Despite defendant’s expressed confusion during the municipal court plea hearing, the Superior Court concluded that the school-zone prosecution was not precluded by notions of fundamental fairness.
Defendant appealed again, arguing that double jeopardy barred prosecution on the school-zone charge. The Appellate Division agreed, finding that, although the second prosecution was not barred under the same-elements test, it was barred under the same-evidence test. 443 N.J. Super. 212, 220, 225-27 (App. Div. 2015).
The Court granted the State’s petition for certification. 225 N.J. 339 (2016).
HELD: New Jersey now joins the majority of jurisdictions in returning to the Blockburger same-elements test as the sole test for determining what constitutes the “same offense” for purposes of double jeopardy. In the interest of justice, the Court applied both the same-elements test and the now-replaced same-evidence test in this case; going forward, for offenses committed after the issuance of this opinion, the same-elements test will serve as the singular framework for determining whether two charges are the same offense for purposes of double-jeopardy analysis. 2
1. Here, the municipal court had jurisdiction to resolve defendant’s disorderly-persons charge pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2B:12-17, and failure to join does not automatically bar subsequent prosecution. For judicial efficiency and fairness to defendants, the Court urges careful coordination between the municipal courts and county prosecutors. (pp. 8-10)
2. The Court has consistently interpreted the State Constitution’s double-jeopardy protection as coextensive with the guarantee of the federal Constitution. A prime concern when reviewing a double-jeopardy claim is whether the second prosecution is for the same offense involved in the first. (pp. 10-11)
3. The United States Supreme Court first announced its test for determining whether a second prosecution is for the same offense in Blockburger, supra, 284 U.S. at 304: If each statute at issue requires proof of an element that the other does not, they do not constitute the same offense and a second prosecution may proceed. This has come to be known as the same-elements test. (pp. 11-12)
4. The Court read the language in Illinois v. Vitale, 447 U.S. 410, 421 (1980), as creating an alternative to Blockburger’s same-elements test—the same-evidence test. The United States Supreme Court reached the same conclusion in Grady v. Corbin, 495 U.S. 508, 510 (1990), but revised its position in United States v. Dixon, 509 U.S. 688, 704, 708-09 (1993), in which it deemed the same-evidence test unworkable and reinstated the Blockburger same-elements test as the sole measure of whether two offenses constitute the same offense. (pp. 12-14)
5. Since Dixon, the majority of states have similarly ruled that the Blockburger same-elements test sets forth the proper test for determining whether two charges are the same offense. Until this case, the Court has not had occasion to reevaluate double-jeopardy jurisprudence in light of Dixon’s return to the same-elements test. As a result, appellate panels have split over whether the same-evidence test still applies in New Jersey. (pp. 14-16)
6. The Court now adopts the same-elements test as the sole double-jeopardy analysis, thereby realigning New Jersey law with federal law. The same-elements test is effortlessly applied at early stages of prosecution; it is capable of producing uniform, predictable results; and it aids defendants by reducing multiple court appearances. Rule 3:15-1(b) bars subsequent prosecutions for indictable offenses, and failure by the prosecution to properly join indictable offenses bars a subsequent prosecution. State v. Williams, 172 N.J. 361, 368 (2002). The Court recognizes a narrow circumstance where it is possible that neither the same-elements test nor the rule in Williams would prevent a second prosecution; if those unlikely events unfolded, the second prosecution might well be barred on joinder or fundamental fairness grounds. As a further safeguard, the Court invites the Supreme Court Committee on Criminal Practice to review the joinder rule and consider adding non-indictable offenses to it. (pp. 16-21)
7. Because the decision establishes a new rule of law, the Court applies the new singular same-elements standard prospectively to offenses committed after the date of this opinion. In fairness to defendant, the Court conducts double-jeopardy analysis using both the same-elements test and the now-removed same-evidence test. Application of the Blockburger same-elements test would lead to the conclusion that loitering to possess marijuana is not the same offense as possession within a school zone. Each offense contains at least one element not required to prove the other. Under the same-evidence test, however, successive prosecution for the school-zone offense is prohibited because it is based on the same evidence that supported the plea and conviction on the loitering offense. (pp. 21-23)
8. For offenses committed after the issuance of this opinion, the same-elements test will serve as the singular framework for determining whether two charges are the same offense for double-jeopardy analysis. (p. 23)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED. Defendant’s conviction and sentence on the school-zone offense are vacated.
JUSTICE ALBIN, DISSENTING, expresses the view that majority’s new rule cannot be squared with the principles of fairness that previously animated New Jersey’s double-jeopardy jurisprudence. According to Justice Albin, the majority’s reversion to the same-elements test will allow the State to pursue repeated prosecutions for the same offense despite an earlier conviction or acquittal.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, and SOLOMON join in JUSTICE TIMPONE’s opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN filed a separate, dissenting opinion in which JUSTICE LaVECCHIA joins.