Burlington County, NJ Law Blog

Friday, April 22, 2016

Forensic Scientist Caught Falsifying Test Results Could Have Huge Impact on Criminal Cases in New Jersey

What kind of implications could the illegal actions of one forensic scientist have on open and closed criminal cases?

When physical evidence needs to undergo analysis in a criminal case, litigants usually rely on the jurisdictions crime lab. But what happens when it turns out that the crime labs, or the people working in them, are not as reliable as previously thought? This can create doubt that can have a serious effect on open and closed cases. This is exactly what is happening right now in the State of New Jersey.

Kamalkant Shah, a forensic scientist at the New Jersey State Police Office of Sciences North Regional Laboratory, is suspected of falsifying lab results. Specifically, he is believed to have falsified records claiming that various substances were marijuana without completing the necessary tests.

Read more . . .

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

NJ Supreme Court Overturns Murder Sentence Because of Judge’s Comments

Earlier this month, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned a 60 year prison sentence in a murder case because the judge who had done the sentencing said during another, unrelated case “I always give defendants convicted by a jury a minimum of 60 years … and you can check my record.”

The Supreme Court said this was not okay because judges are supposed to make the sentences they give out match the crime that the defendant was convicted of, not just pick out a random number. This case has a lot of people wondering if the sentences they or their loved ones received were fair, or just a number the judge likes.

Read more . . .

Monday, March 28, 2016

Court Decides Gag Order Not Necessary in Lodzinski Murder Case

Should the defense attorney been prohibited from speaking with the press in this case?

A gag order, also known as a protective or suppression order, is used to stop those involved in legal matters from speaking publicly about a case. Gag orders are usually used in high profile cases to ensure that the defendant receives a fair trial free from bias created by the public’s prior knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the matter. In a current New Jersey criminal case that is receiving a lot of media attention the prosecution has asked that the defense be prevented from speaking to the press.

In 1991, Read more . . .

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Racial Bias in Media Coverage of Domestic Violence Offenders

Why does media coverage target African-American domestic abusers more vigorously than white offenders?

According to a research study undertaken by the University of Maryland, there appears to be a discrepancy in the way the media covers celebrity domestic violence cases, depending on the race of the offenders. In examining 330 news articles covering approximately 66 celebrities between 2009 and 2011, the study found a much more vociferous response in the press and over the air waves when the abusers were people of color. Clearly, though domestic violence should never be tolerated, our culture seems to have a bias about how serious a crime it represents depending on who commits it.

Evidence of racial bias, according to the study, was found in the much higher number of news articles about Chris Brown than in those about Sean Penn, Mel Gibson, and Charlie Sheen. Also, while Chris Brown has been attacked again and again on TV interviews, Charlie Sheen, who has arguably committed as many violent attacks on women, has been handled with kid gloves. Brown's domestic abuse convictions have also kept him from getting a visa to travel on tour, while we have not heard anything about the white celebrities being deprived of travel privileges.

As the Media Reports, Society Responds

If we as a society want to reduce the occurrence of the domestic violence, it is incumbent upon us to prosecute such cases impartially.  The University of Maryland study uncovered the fact that white celebrities involved in domestic abuse scandals were less likely to receive harsh news coverage than their minority counterparts. White abusers were two and a half times more likely to be portrayed as "troubled" or partners in a conflicted marriage. There was also an observed tendency to view white violence as the result of "mitigating circumstances," such as intoxication or temporary insanity.

It is in this context of unequal media treatment, coupled with unequal arrest and prosecution that the innocent verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial begins to make a modicum of sense. In a social environment where black and Hispanic men are so much more prone to be victimized by the system, it is somewhat understandable that the minority community would rise up to protect one of its own.

The Statistics

Joanna Pepin, lead author of the study, noted several ways in which the characterizations of white and black celebrity domestic abusers differed:

  • Black men were 3 times more likely to be portrayed as criminals
  • Reports on black men were 3 times more likely to cite arrest information, official charges, and mention of law enforcement
  • While anger or intoxication were used as excuses for the violence of white men, black men were more likely to be stigmatized as addicts or criminals

This tendency to absolve white celebrities of responsibility for their domestic violence has disturbing implications -- it not only furthers racial bias, but it leads to victim-blaming of a significant portion of survivors.

As pointed out by Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, on the organization's website, “When the media reinforce destructive racial stereotypes, where white celebrity abusers are coddled and celebrity abusers of color are vilified, all victims lose.”

The penalties for domestic violence can be harsh and carry over into your ability to lead a normal life in the future. As this article illustrates, you may, simply because of your race or ethnicity, not be playing on a level field when you encounter media coverage or even the criminal justice system. If you have been charged with domestic violence, you should promptly contact an expert criminal defense attorney to give you the best chance of a positive outcome.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

4 Key Defense Issues Exposed in ‘Making a Murderer’

By now, most have seen (or at least heard of) the controversial docu-series entitled Making a Murderer, which is featured on the streaming television service Netflix. While the documentary has been criticized and heralded alike (depending on who you ask), it has at the very least exposed several issues common to homicide defense that we strive to eliminate every day. The following takes a brief look at four of the most common defense obstacles as highlighted in Making a Murderer, followed by sound advice if you are unfortunately facing a similar plight.

            #1: Unsecured crime scenes -- Over and over, the defense in Making a Murderer pointed to the fact the local law enforcement officials -- who were directed not to conduct the investigation due to conflicts of interest -- entered and tromped around the alleged crime scenes close to one dozen times, often rearranging vital evidence and potentially dragging in contaminants from other areas. As defense attorneys, we work tirelessly to ensure our clients are not implicated by evidence that may or may not have been present at the crime scene at the time of the alleged incident, and will strenuously object to the introduction of any evidence possibly tainted by an unsecured crime scene.

            #2: Evidence tampering -- In the documentary, blood evidence was discovered in storage that had presumably been tampered with -- as evidenced by the broken seal and puncture mark at the top of the vial. In Making a Murderer, the theory was that law enforcement stole the sample (which was from a 1980’s rape case) in order to plant the defendant’s blood around the crime scene. However, evidence tampering can also occur in more innocuous settings, such as in the testing and sampling of seized drugs or in the blood alcohol testing of a DUI suspect. Regardless of the surrounding circumstances, evidence of tampering will not be tolerated and we will similarly strenuously object to an attempts to introduce biological evidence that may be compromised.

            #3: Lack of counsel -- Perhaps one of the most startling aspects of the Making a Murderer timeline is the aggressive interrogation tactics implemented to garner a confession from a minor child with a limited IQ. Not only did the child not have counsel present, but his parent was not allowed in the room either. As experienced criminal defense attorneys, we know our clients’ rights to counsel -- particularly when the interrogation suspect is of limited cognition or a minor. Any “confessions” gleaned using these tactics are, under the law, not admissible in court -- and we will argue as such as strenuously as possible.

             #4: Prosecutorial issues -- Since the defendant’s trial, the prosecutor has since been disbarred for engaging in inappropriate communications with a victim in a subsequent domestic violence case. However, before and during the Making a Murderer trial, there was questionable conduct by the prosecutor involved, as well as his team of investigators. If we ever suspect such misconduct, we will work diligently to alert the court and take the appropriate steps to mitigate the issue.

Contact an experienced homicide defense attorney today!  If you are facing serious felony charges, please contact the experienced professionals of Sitzler Law in New Jersey today: 609-267-1101. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Racial Profiling During Traffic Stops

Do cops really pull you over for "driving while black"?

Though the research studies on racial profiling during traffic stops are a few years old, they are still alarming. In 2011, out of the one in 10 American drivers pulled over for traffic violations, there were proportionately more black drivers (12.8 percent) and Hispanic drivers (10.4 percent) pulled over than white drivers (9.8 percent). These statistics translate into a 31 percent greater likelihood of being stopped for a traffic violation if you are African-American than if you are white, and a 23 percent greater likelihood if you are black than Hispanic. Apparently, "driving while black" does put you at a much greater risk of having a confrontation with police while on the road.

Lest you feel that only blacks and Hispanics are racially profiled in this country, you should know that Native American drivers have an even greater likelihood of being stopped by police while driving than do black drivers -- 15 percent.

Reasons for Traffic Stops Vary Among Races

Just over 50 percent of white drivers are most often stopped for speeding, as opposed to 37.7 percent of blacks and 39.2 percent of Hispanics. Interestingly, black drivers are more commonly pulled over for vehicle defects or record checks. While this may partly be because of racial profiling and trumped up excuses to target black drivers, it may also have socioeconomic basis. Since blacks in this country are far more likely to be poorer than whites, they are that much more likely to be driving older cars with more vehicle defects. They are also less likely to have the financial resources to keep their cars up-to-date in registrations and inspections because of the fees involved.

Inequalities in Treatment after Being Stopped

Not only are black, Hispanic, and Native American drivers pulled over more frequently, but they more frequently complain about being treated with disrespect by law enforcement. They also complain about:

  • Not being given a reason by police for being pulled over
  • Being searched more frequently than other drivers
  • Having their cash seized by police

These complaints are borne out by the facts. While only 2.6 percent of whites report not being giving a reason for the traffic stop, 3.3 Hispanics report this injustice, as do nearly 5 percent of African-Americans. Many of us may also be familiar with the recent case in Suffolk County, New York in which a police officer has been arrested for routinely stopping, searching, and robbing Hispanic immigrants whom he suspected of being undocumented. His theory was that they would be afraid to report the crime; many of them were.

Evidence that Law Enforcement Practices Are Unfair

Clearly, as many of the presidential candidates are pointing out during their campaign speeches, criminal justice in this country is badly in need of reform. The following statistics attest to the inequalities present in the arena of traffic law enforcement.

The percentages of motorists who felt unfairly stopped by traffic police were:

  • 32.5 percent of blacks
  • 26.4 percent of Hispanics
  • 16.4 percent of whites

Interestingly, in all cases drivers were more likely to feel that the traffic stop was legitimate if the traffic cop who pulled them over was of the same race.

Racial Attitudes and Racial Profiling

Though there may be reasons besides racial profiling that lead to the troubling statistics, the fact remains that blacks, Hispanics, and other minority groups (even as they are becoming the majority) too often have come to view the police as enemies rather than protectors. It is easy to see how this could happen when the simple truth is that black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than whites, twice as likely to be subjected to a police search and almost twice as likely not to be given any reason for being stopped in the first place. Unfortunately, the facts are clearly black and white.

If you believe you have been stopped for "driving while black" or under circumstances that you consider unfair, or if you are treated badly by law enforcement, you should not feel there is no one to turn to.  Contact a reputable and experienced criminal defense attorney who specializes in traffic violation defense.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

N.J. Jury Upholds 'Cold Case' Murder Conviction

Is there a statute of limitations in New Jersey for homicide?

Across the civil and criminal laws, there are a number of statutes of limitation that limit the amount of time a plaintiff or complainant has to initiate a legal proceeding. In the civil context, a plaintiff has just two years from the date of a personal injury to make a claim in negligence. Under criminal laws, the state is limited to five years for crimes like burglary, assault, or arson. However, when it comes to the most severe crimes – including murder, manslaughter, and most sex crimes – there is no applicable statute of limitations, and so-called “cold cases” may be prosecuted and resolved any number of years after the occurrence of the incident.

Appeals Court Upholds Conviction

In late December, 2015, the New Jersey Court of Appeals considered an appeal from a criminal defendant facing 50 years in prison following his conviction for stabbing a 22-year-old female to death. The incident occurred nearly 15 years ago, but the defendant was not brought to trial until October, 2013 – primarily due to advances in DNA analysis technology not yet available at the time of the murder.

On appeal, the defendant questioned several aspects of his trial, including the trial court’s decision to deny defense counsel the opportunity to interview a juror who had allegedly expressed “second thoughts” about the conviction. According to the defendant’s counsel, the juror contacted the court five days after the verdict was rendered, detailing her hesitation in sentencing the defendant to 50 years in prison.

Court Overrules Juror Misconduct Argument

Despite the defendant’s strenuous objections to the denial, the appellate court upheld the conviction – citing the heightened threshold for post-conviction interviews of jurors. According to the court’s opinion, “only if there is a strong showing of juror misconduct should interrogation of a juror be allowed…Denial of a defense interview request in [this] case is not a cause for reversal of the conviction… [the court] found no suggestion of outside influence, racial prejudice, media exposure or other irregular influences….” – any of which could have resulted in a dismissal of a criminal conviction in New Jersey.

If you have been charged with committing, or are under investigation, you should promptly contact an experienced criminal attorney to discuss your case and review your options.  

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Steely Dan Co-Founder Charged in Domestic Violence Case

How common is domestic violence?

The lead singer and co-founder of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen, was recently arrested on misdemeanor assault charges stemming from a domestic violence incident with his wife.

A New York City Police Department spokesperson reportedly said that Fagen and his wife, Libby Titus, were involved on a verbal dispute and that he grabbed her by the arm and pushed her. Ms. Titus fell into a marble window frame and bruised her arm. The singer was released without bail the morning after the incident after his arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court. The judge issued an order of protection for Mr. Fagen to keep away from his wife. While it is unclear at this time how this case will be resolved, it shows that domestic violence can occur in any relationship.

What is domestic violence?

Anyone can become a victim of domestic violence, regardless of socioeconomic background, education level, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, or gender. Domestic violence has typically been referred to as spousal abuse, but spouses of either gender are not the only ones who can be victimized. Domestic abuse victims can be children, other family members, people who are living together and even dating partners.
Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain control over another partner. Domestic violence can occur in many ways, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, economic abuse, psychological abuse, threats, stalking and cyber- stalking. Common forms of abuse involve the following:

• Physical abuse includes any type of violent behavior inflicted on the victim -- hitting, biting, slapping, battering, punching, and shoving (as was the case allegedly involving the Steely Dan front man).

• Sexual abuse occurs when the abuser attempts to coerce or force, or actually coerces or forces, the victim into having sexual contact without his or her consent.

• Emotional abuse involves things like constant criticism, bullying, name-calling, injuring the victim's relationship with others, threatening, or interfering with natural freedoms.

• Psychological abuse involves intimidation by the abuser threatening to physically hurt him or herself, the victim, children, isolating the victim from loved ones, and/or prohibiting the victim from going to school or work.

What can be done about domestic violence?

If you have been the victim of domestic violence, you should call the police. There are a number of legal protections available, including obtaining a order of protection. You should also contact a qualified attorney who can help determine other legal remedies that may be available to you.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Jersey Aims to Divert Low-Level Offenders Suffering from Psychiatric Issues

What options are available for criminal defendants suffering from a mental health condition?

Criminal laws are of course designed as punitive measures to ensure the safety and security of society as a whole. For some offenders, however, a stint behind bars will do very little to curtail the true underlying cause of their unlawful tendencies: psychiatric disorder. For some sufferers of a mental health condition, the disease manifests to cause drug dependency and abuse – which in turn leads to various other criminal activities (e.g., theft, prostitution, drug sales). For others, psychiatric disturbances cause erratic behavior, loss of impulse control, and a bevy of other symptoms perhaps treatable with medicine and therapy as opposed to incarceration.

Fortunately, the New Jersey legislature has taken heed of these emerging realities by awarding $150,000 each to the counties of Gloucester, Hunterdon and Warren to help divert defendants who would benefit psychiatric treatment rather than imprisonment. The funds will be used to help contract with private psychiatric service providers, and are designed to help counties save money from the soaring costs of incarceration. If an offender is able to adhere to the terms of his or her case plan and completes treatment on time, the underlying criminal offense will be dismissed and will not remain a part of the offender’s criminal history.

According to the Treatment Advocacy Network, the number of mentally ill individuals in jail far exceeds the number of those in treatment. In a statement by TAN:

[New Jersey jails] are required to house hundreds of thousands of seriously mentally ill inmates. In many cases, they are unable to provide them with psychiatric medications. The use of other options, such as solitary confinement or restraining devices, is sometimes necessary and may produce a worsening of symptoms. Yet, when things go wrong, as they inevitably do, the prison and jail officials are blamed….

Based on estimates, there are approximately ten times more mentally ill individuals in jail nationwide than in psychiatric treatment facilities. In a statement by Attorney General Hoffman, “[p]roviding these services to low-level criminal defendants with a diagnosed mental disorder is not only a cost-effective alternative to prison, but research consistently shows it reduces recidivism.”

If you are facing recent criminal charges and would like to discuss your options, please contact a New Jersey criminal defense attorney today!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Man Dies in Howell Police Custody -- Family Sues

Was there justification for police actions used to subdue an intoxicated man that resulted in his death?

Sisters of a 38-year-old man, who died while being subdued by police at a musical festival last summer, have filed a 20-page wrongful death complaint in the case. They allege that the security officers and staff members of the festival used "excessive and unreasonable physical force" to restrain Timothy J. Harden, who, they claim, was experiencing a medical episode involving his consumption of alcohol and cocaine. They further allege that, once the police arrived, the officers used deadly force against Harden, effectively choking him to death.

The attorney representing the family maintains that, while they do not condone use of excessive alcohol or illegal drugs, Harden did not deserve the mistreatment he received at the hands of staff, security officers, or police. At the time of the incident, Harden was volunteering at the festival and ended up suffering fractured cartilage in his neck, as well as multiple contusions and abrasions.

The lawsuit, initiated on behalf of the Harden family members, names many defendants: the employees of the Howell Township Police Department, the sponsoring Priedaine New Jersey Latvian Society, Griffins Society LLC and Souper Groove LLP, and the individual organizers of the music festival.

Howell Police Chief Andrew Kudrick, Jr. has stated that he will personally review the specific elements of the case and determine whether any follow-up is necessary. Nonetheless, he asserts that, based on his "initial review" of the incident and his presence at the scene, that he is so far confident that the officers acted "properly and professionally," in accordance with all policies and procedures.

Despite Evidence, Questions Remain

Event organizers said that they originally called police to the scene because of Harden's disorderly, violent, and paranoid behavior. It was subsequently determined that Harden, who was fighting with the security guards, had both an elevated blood-alcohol level (.11 percent) and cocaine in his system.

While the owner of Griffin Security LLC reported that one guard was punched under his left eye while trying to restrain Harden, Harden's family is stilled awaiting more medical information on the precise cause of his death, stating that they have not yet received a police report.

After he was subdued, Harden was taken to New Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune where he was pronounced dead. The lawsuit claims negligence, use of excessive force, and civil rights violations. The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified compensatory, punitive and other damages for surviving family members.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

New Jersey Prison Population Has Greatly Decreased

How does New Jersey’s prison population rank relative to other states?

Recent reports have found that New Jersey’s prison population is decreasing at a greater rate than any other state besides Mississippi. This decline comes along with an even larger fall in the crime rate. Since the year 2000, New Jersey’s prison population has fallen 26 percent, and crime has fallen by 30 percent. Therefore, it is clear that lowering the prison population does not raise the crime rate. The significant decreases are linked to investments in alternative courts, like drug courts, and in mental health programs. At the present time, the majority of the incarcerated in New Jersey are violent offenders, instead of nonviolent offenders.

The stark decrease in both of these figures has drawn praise from around the country. Senator Cory Booker is pushing for a bill to reform mandatory minimum sentencing, and President Obama is making a visit to speak about the positive effects of these reforms. Governor Christie has spoken often about the plight of drug offenders in a system in need of change. Part of his platform in campaigning for the White House involves reforming our criminal justice system.

Taxpayers will see indirect benefits from this reduced crime rate, but also direct benefits, as a lower prison population means less taxpayer money spent on the prison system. Another direct benefit is to the prison infrastructure. Fewer inmates means a greater possibility of closing off unused sections of older prisons so that badly needed renovations can commence.

Some additional reforms that are now urged are:

• To decrease the use of solitary confinement
• To improve programs for prisoner reentry into society
• To change federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws
• To invest more in alternative programs (e.g. drug courts,and mental health programs

If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime, it is essential to contact an experienced attorney promptly in order to have the best possible outcome of your case.

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