Burlington County, NJ Law Blog

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bad Rap? Convicted Man Gets New Trial Because of Prosecutor's Use of Song Lyrics

A Burlington County man convicted of attempted murder will get a new trial, thanks to a unanimous ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court.  Rapper and drug dealer Vonte Skinner had appealed his conviction on the grounds the prosecution unfairly used his violent rap lyrics at trial to influence the jury.  The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that the lyrics were highly prejudicial and had no evidentiary value.

Skinner had received a 30-year sentence for the 2005 shooting of Lamont Peterson.  Shot in the head, neck and torso, Peterson survived but was paralyzed from the waist down.  The two men had been associates in a drug-dealing operation in Willingboro, New Jersey.  Accused by the victim, Skinner admitted being present at the shooting but denied firing the shots.  The gun used was never recovered.

During the trial, prosecutors asked a police officer to read from thirteen pages of violent rap lyrics that Skinner had written at least four years before the crime occurred.  The Supreme Court rejected the prosecution's claim that these lines were evidence of the defendant's state of mind.  They cited Bob Marley's song "I Shot the Sheriff" and Edgar Allan Poe's "'The Tell-Tale Heart" to make their point that artistic expression should not be considered proof of an actual crime.  The court opined that, though irrelevant to the case, some of Skinner's rap lyrics might be so distasteful to jurors that they would be more inclined to vote for a conviction.

A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union praised the decision for its thoroughness and hailed it as a victory for free speech.  The court's detailed opinion could have an impact on the thinking of courts in other states.  There are currently about twenty similar cases around the country involving prosecutors' use of rap lyrics to buttress their cases against criminal defendants.

The case also is also a reminder that, when charged of a crime, a defendant may find that his entire life is on trial.  Only a vigorous and pro-active defense can prevent prosecutors from bringing in inflammatory but irrelevant information to get a conviction.  The experienced Burlington County, New Jersey criminal defense attorneys at Sitzler & Sitzler fight hard to make sure that a case is tried on the merits and that prosecutors are not allowed to poison the minds of jurors.  If you have been accused of a crime or worry you might be, contact us at (609)267-1101 today for a free consultation.

Friday, July 25, 2014

New Guidelines Give New Jersey Sexual Assault Victims More Time to File Charges

New guidelines require New Jersey prosecutors to retain DNA evidence in sexual assault cases for five years, instead of 90 days.  The change has been hailed as a victory for victims who, traumatized by their experience, don't always go forward immediately with a criminal complaint.  It also poses new risks for those accused of sexual offenses, who could face five-year old allegations. 

Survivors of rape and other sexual attacks are sometimes unable to decide right away whether they want to file a criminal complaint.  This hesitation often weakens any case prosecutors might bring later because, during the delay, valuable forensic evidence can be lost or destroyed.  While some New Jersey county prosecutors retain medical evidence for longer than 90 days, they have not been required to do so.

Now, Acting State Attorney General John Hoffman has announced that, when a sexual assault victim is not sure whether to report a crime, county prosecutors must keep the DNA in an evidence kit for five years.  For minors, the five-year period does not begin running until the child is 18.  After five years, the evidence can be destroyed, but only with the approval of the county prosecutor or the director of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice.

The guidelines are a victory for rape survivors, giving them more time to recover, heal, and decide whether to proceed.  They are potentially a setback, however, for anyone accused of a sex-related crime, whether innocent or guilty.  Under the new procedures, DNA evidence could be used five years after an incident, at a time when memories may be hazy and any witnesses may have moved on.  

A conviction for a sex crime in NJ carries significant prison time as well as Megan's Law registration and Community Supervision for Life.  For those accused of a sexual offense or worried about a possible future accusation, the new guidelines make it more imperative than ever that they seek effective defense counsel.

If you are facing charges for a sex offense, including inappropriate touching, sexual battery or rape, you should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately.  An attorney can help you better understand not only the procedural aspects of a sex offense case but also the legal ramifications of a guilty plea versus a not-guilty plea and subsequent trial.

For cases or allegations involving serious sex crimes in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester or Mercer Counties, call the experienced defense lawyers at Sitzler & Sitzler at (609)267-1101.   Contact us today for a free consultation.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Plea Bargaining: What is it and how can it help you?

Contrary to popular opinion, or what you have come to believe from watching Law & Order reruns, very few criminal matters go to trial.  Trials are extremely time consuming and outrageously expensive for both the prosecution and defense.  It can also take years to actually get to trial, which results in defendants who cannot make bail being incarcerated for long periods of time.  Most of the time, criminal charges are resolved by plea bargain.

What is a plea bargain?

A plea bargain is an agreement between the state and the defendant.  The state is represented by the prosecution.  The defendant may be represented by a criminal defense attorney or not represented by counsel at all.  The state and the defendant or defense counsel negotiate a deal.  These deals typically result in a shorter sentence for a plea of guilty or nolo contendre (no contest).  Terms relating to things other than the length of punishment can also be included in a plea deal.  These other terms might include the type of punishment one receives, (such as incarceration, probation or no punishment at all) and where that sentence is served.  Plea bargaining is a way for all parties to benefit from working together.  The prosecution gets to avoid trial and still gets a guilty plea.  The defendant often benefits from a shorter and less rigid sentence.

Plea bargain agreements are not set in stone in all respects.  Although they usually do, judges do not have to accept a plea deal.  Part of the judge’s function is to make decisions regarding sentencing, and if a plea deal is out of line with what the judge thinks is appropriate, chances are the plea will be rejected.  A defendant can withdraw their plea up until the court accepts it, after this point it is considered final.  If the plea is accepted by the judge before it is withdrawn, the defendant cannot break the agreement unless they formally appeal.

If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, plea bargaining might be an option.  Depending upon the punishment you are facing, a plea deal can be very beneficial to you.  The experienced criminal defense attorneys at Sitzler & Sitzler are skilled in the art of plea bargaining.  Call (609)267-1101 for a consultation today.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Push for New Jersey Bail Reform

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is pushing for bail reform in the wake of a shooting that took place at a funeral. In April, gunfire erupted during a Trenton funeral honoring a 19-year-old man. One of three men suspected in the shooting was out on bail at the time. It has since been discovered that this suspect committed three serious crimes within the month prior to the shooting.

Governor Christie is putting pressure on New Jersey legislators to propose bail reform legislation. Christie wants judges to be able to take the past criminal history of each offender into account when deciding whether to grant bail. With the legislature’s summer break right around the corner, the Governor has urged law makers to act as soon as possible, saying he would sign it into law immediately.

What effect would this type of bail reform have on criminal defendants? For one thing, it would make the bail process longer and more complex. Under the proposed legislation, judges would have the ability to review the history of each criminal defendant when deciding on bail, which could turn the review of relatively minor offense into a drawn out review of one’s criminal record. Defendants with past criminal histories would be less likely to be granted bail or would be granted bail in amounts they cannot afford. This means that more defendants would be incarcerated awaiting a plea deal or a trial, further stressing the New Jersey prison system. It would also mean that many defendants who are wrongly accused would be forced to give up their freedom for long periods of time.

The full impact that the proposed bail reform would have on criminal defendants is still largely unknown. What is clear is that if a bill of this nature is passed, it would be even more critical to retain an experienced criminal defense attorney to represent you immediately following your arrest. If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime in the State of New Jersey call Sitzler & Sitzler at (609)267-1101 for a consultation today.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Minors Sentenced to Life Unconstitutionally

United States Supreme Court case law that developed over the last few years has made it unconstitutional to sentence a child to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  The sentence of a minor must include a “meaningful opportunity for release” although it does not have to guarantee that the minor will be released after serving a certain amount of time.  Some states get around this court made law by handing down prison terms that make it likely that the young offender will die in prison before their first parole hearing.  New Jersey is one of these states.

In New Jersey, it is still a reality that a minor who is accused of a serious offense will face a lengthy prison sentence effectively condemning them to life in prison.  An example of this practice is that of James Comer who was convicted and sentenced to 75 years when he was 17.  He is now 31 years old and has served 14 years for four robberies and felony murder.  Comer did not kill anyone himself but was subject to the felony murder rule which provides that anyone involved in the felony that ultimately results in a death can be charged with murder.  Comer actually received more time than the accomplice that committed the murder and his adult accomplice.  This in itself violates court made law that minors involved in a crime should not receive the harshest sentence.  The American Civil Liberties Union has submitted a motion asking for a reduction of Comer’s sentence.

It is not very difficult to understand why minors should be treated differently than adults when it comes to sentencing for serious crimes.   It is pretty clear that children are very different from adults, biologically and psychologically.  Due to these differences, children can be reformed more easily than adults.  Only approximately 5-10% of children involved in crimes grow up to be chronic offenders as adults and it is impossible to determine which of them it will be.  The ACLU has used these statistics as part of its basis in asking NJ to give up its practice of handing down life sentences for minors.

If you or someone you know is a minor who is facing accusations of a serious crime, call Sitzler & Sitzler at (609)267-1101.

Friday, May 30, 2014

New Jersey Assembly Panel Advances Bill in Response to Rising Rates of Drug Addiction

The rate of addiction to prescription drugs and heroin has been increasing all over the United States in recent years. A New Jersey Bill has been advanced by a state Assembly Panel relating to these issues. The bill comes partially as a response to a 2013 report showing a high rate of prescription drug abuse in the state. This Bill, A-3062, will increase restrictions on the prescription and dispensing of painkillers in various ways.

According to the Bill, in addition to criminal penalties, health care providers will be subject to civil penalties for improperly prescribing pain killers. The first offense will carry a $10,000 penalty, the second offense and those thereafter will carry a $20,000 penalty. Each individual prescription and/or refill will count as a separate instance of improper prescribing and carry a separate penalty.

The Bill will also require pharmacies to submit information on prescriptions dispensed once a day. Anyone who prescribes or dispenses prescription pain killers will be responsible for checking information in a prescription monitoring program prior to prescribing/dispensing to see if the patient has received other prescriptions that indicate abuse or aversion.

The Bill will grant the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs authority to gather information involving relationships between licensees of the State Board of Medical Examiners. The State Board of Medical Examiners will also be required to adopt clear rules relating to the use of prescription pain killers for pain management. It will also institute new security features to prevent the erasure or duplication of prescriptions.

The effects of this Bill will significantly increase penalties for those involved in the improper prescription of pain killers. It has been found that many medical professionals have been involved in “pill mills”. Pill Mills are medical practices and pharmacies that give addicts access to prescription pain killers on a regular basis. Some Pill Mills have also been linked to organized crime and gangs in the State of New Jersey.

If you have been accused of the improper prescription or dispensing of pain killers or any other crime, contact the New Jersey criminal defense attorneys at Sitzler & Sitzler at (609)267-1101.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Search Warrants, Smartphones and the Constitution

Smartphones are becoming increasingly sophisticated and function essentially as handheld computers. In fact, advances in mobile technology have enabled devices like iPhones to store as much or more information than desktop computers from just a decade ago. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the cases of two men convicted of crimes due to evidence found on their smartphones. This evidence used against them was obtained without search warrants. The court heard arguments from both sides last month to decide if those searches were constitutional or not, and as a result, the fate of the two men currently in prison. A decision is expected next month.

Hand held devices and the 4th Amendment

These cases boil down to whether or not the law enforcement needs to obtain search warrants before obtaining evidence from the suspects’ smartphones. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states,
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Law enforcement and criminal defendants are constantly in court exploring the meaning and boundaries of this Amendment. This is just the latest chapter in a very long book.

Police have long been allowed to search people without a warrant when making an arrest. In the past, a person could only carry so much information on their person. Smartphones have radically changed that, potentially opening the door to a range of communications, connections, phone numbers, photos, videos, documents, internet searches and text messages.

One of the cases involves David Riley, who in 2009 was pulled over for driving with expired tags in San Diego. His car was impounded, inventoried and guns were discovered under the hood. An initial search of his smartphone indicated he might be involved in gang activity. Two hours later, a gang investigator went through the phone’s digital files and downloaded contacts, videos and photos, some of which were used to convict Riley of several felonies.

Searches of small smartphones and the big picture,

Riley’s attorney, Jeffrey Fisher, according to NPR, told the justices the major concern of warrantless searches of smartphones is that the information from them could be downloaded and kept in “ever-growing databases." He said if there’s a warrant, a neutral magistrate reviews the application and can limit the search, as well as the retention of the downloaded information, if it’s not used to prosecute a crime.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Disputing Breath Test Results in DUI Cases

A DUI or DWI arrest and criminal charge based on a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) tests doesn't necessarily mean the defendant is helpless and unable to change the course of their case. Results from BAC tests taken during a DUI arrest aren't always legally untouchable in New Jersey, meaning there may be some leeway in which a defendant and their attorney can dispute the accuracy of the results by questioning the condition of testing devices and a variety of other possible issues.

The results of the Breathalyzer test are only admissible in New Jersey court if the following can be proven by the prosecution:

  • The breathalyzer was in proper working order at the time the breath sample was taken,
  • the person who operated the machine holds all proper certifications to do so, and
  • the proper procedure was followed during the sample collection.

The working condition of the Breathalyzer, its operator, and the process followed all come into play when it comes to the admissibility of the results in NJ court. An experienced DUI defense attorney may have a chance to knock the breath test results out of the case by invalidating them, which is done by proving one of the following errors or mistakes:

  • Lack of Breathalyzer calibration - routine tests by New Jersey State Police ensure that the machine is in good working order, but due to the time-consuming process, calibrations can often be pushed back.
  • BAC readings not within tolerance - readings fall outside the range of acceptable tolerance, rendering the test results inadmissible in proving intoxication.
  • Failure to produce foundational documents or other discovery.

While there are numerous other grounds on which a DUI attorney can prove the results of the defendant's breath test invalid, these are some of the more common reasons. It's important to note that the above issues aren't automatically revealed, the defense attorney usually has to file a motion to force the prosecution to provide all of the relevant records. This is why working with an attorney who has a wealth of DUI defense experience as well as a comprehensive knowledge of New Jersey DUI proceedings, like the attorneys of Sitzler & Sitzler, is so important. To discuss possible legal defenses following a drunk driving charge in Burlington County, NJ contact the DUI defense attorneys of Sitzler & Sitzler at 609-267-1101.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sex Crime Defenses in New Jersey

Sex crime criminal charges present unique challenges. Not many other criminal charges incur the societal judgment and embarrassment that sometimes follows a single minor indiscretion that the accused strongly wishes could remain private. And no other criminal accusation involves more false charges: many motives exist that can lead an individual to claim that assault, molestation or rape occurred, whether such a crime actually happened or not.

Fortunately, numerous defense strategies exist to counter these and other challenges in New Jersey and elsewhere. An effective defense may demonstrate your innocence, reduce or eliminate criminal penalties and keep your record clean. Examples of sex crime defenses include:

  • Questioning and suppressing evidence. Charges of stalking, soliciting a minor and possession of child pornography often involve computers and/or the seizure of evidence. Yet law enforcement officials face strict rules regarding how and when they can obtain evidence. If your constitutional rights were violated at any point in the legal process, prosecutors may be unable to use key evidence when trying to prove your guilt.
  • Tainted testimony. When a child’s testimony is needed to prove that an alleged crime occurred, it's possible that counselors, teachers, prosecutors and others tainted the testimony by planting ideas, asking leading questions and capitalizing on a child's desire to please. When a child’s memory and statements are manipulated, though, they become unreliable and can be challenged and often suppressed.

  • Questioning the adult accuser’s motives. Unfortunately, certain circumstances can lead an individual to falsely claim that a sex crime occurred. For instance, charges of child molestation can provide an advantage in child custody disputes. Remorse or vengeance can lead to charges of rape following consensual sex. And employees can easily create serious legal problems for an employer by claiming that workplace sexual harassment occurred.

If you have been charged with a sex crime in New Jersey, contact the law firm of Sitzler & Sitzler in Burlington County, New Jersey for more information on sex crime criminal defense options. Our defense team has decades of experience successfully fighting sex crime charges in cities across New Jersey. To contact us, call 609-267-1101.

Monday, March 31, 2014

New Jersey Implied Consent Laws

What is implied consent and how does it apply to New Jersey residents who are arrested for a DUI/DWI?

If you've been charged with driving under the influence, or a DUI/DWI, in New Jersey, you are legally required to submit to chemical tests of your breath, blood or urine to determine the level of your blood alcohol content (BAC).

Although implied consent laws vary by state, it's understood- or implied- that you agreed to submit to these tests back when you signed papers to get your driver's license. The DriversEd Read more . . .

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Is It Possible to Clear Your Juvenile Record in New Jersey?

What is the process for having juvenile records expunged in New Jersey?

For the most part, New Jersey juvenile records are "safe" from public view. Having your records officially sealed or expunged will ensure their confidentiality. In general, a sealed or expunged juvenile record is almost like a clean slate. It's also a new start in that you are not required to share information about the record with anyone.

That being said, there are numerous circumstances in which a sealed or expunged juvenile record may be reopened. For example, if you are convicted of a subsequent offense, it may be possible that your sealed juvenile record may be visible to those previously allowed to view it.

Is your NJ juvenile record eligible for expungement?

  • Your record may be eligible for expungement or sealing if it has been two years since you were released from custody, supervision, or the provisions of a court order. In addition, you must not have been adjudicated delinquent or convicted of a crime or disorderly persons offense at any time in the two years between the original offense for which you're seeking expungement and your request for sealing. In other words, no juvenile or criminal matters may be pending against you.
  • Another way your record may qualify for expungement is through military enlistment. If you provide evidence to the court that you have been accepted by a military branch, in most cases your records will be eligible for sealing. However, the order to expunge your records will be lifted if you don't follow through with the enlistment.

New Jersey Statutes on Juvenile Court Record Expungements

If you were arrested but not ruled delinquent, your arrest record is generally eligible for sealing. However, if there was a plea bargain for dismissal or acquittal that resulted in additional adjudications, the records may not be eligible for sealing.

In order to expunge your entire juvenile record, five years must have passed since you were discharged from custody, supervision, or the provisions of a court order, and again, you must not have been ruled delinquent or convicted of an additional crime within that five-year period, some other conditions apply.

The juvenile law attorneys at the Burlington County law firm of Sitzler & Sitzler will determine whether your record qualifies for sealing or expunging in New Jersey. We are aggressive in our defense of juvenile cases. Call us today at 609-267-1101 to schedule a consultation to discuss your case and learn more about your options.

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