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New Jersey Supreme Court Holds DNA Exception Tolling Statute of Limitations Applies Only to Suspect Directly Identified by DNA

by Dale Chappell

Tolling of the statute of limitations under the DNA statute applies only to the “actor” directly linked to the crime by the DNA, and not to others involved in the crime, the Supreme Court of New Jersey held. The Court interpreted the word ‘actor’ to mean only the person directly identified by the DNA.

When DNA evidence identified the defendants in two separate cases, those defendants talked, implicating others involved in their crimes. But the statute of limitations for the offense had long passed, absent any tolling under the DNA statute. The persons implicated in the cases argued that because the DNA did not “directly link” them to the crimes, the tolling provision for the applicable statute of limitations could not apply to them. The trial court agreed and dismissed the indictments, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The Supreme Court granted the State’s petition for certification and affirmed the lower courts’ rulings.

For most crimes, there is a statute of limitations that imposes a deadline on how long after a crime a person can be charged with the offense. However, the DNA-tolling exception under N.J.S.A. 2C:1-6(c) delays the running of the statute of limitations “when the prosecution is supported by physical evidence that identifies the actor by means of DNA testing … until the State is in possession of both the physical evidence and the DNA … evidence necessary to establish the identification of the actor by means of comparison to the physical evidence.”

The question in this appeal was whether the word ‘actor’ includes those involved in the crime, but not directly identified by the DNA evidence.

The State argued that the word ‘actor’ includes multiple defendants who are not known to law enforcement until DNA evidence in obtained. It asserted that, according to other statutes using the word ‘actor,’ it referred to any “natural person” who was involved in the crime, even those accused by the person identified by the DNA. The defendants, on the other hand, argued that the word ‘actor’ under the legislative history of the statute means “suspect,” and does not include those who were not directly identified by the DNA.

“The statute of limitations is not intended to assist the State in its investigations; it is intended to protect a defendant’s ability to sustain his or her defense,” the Court said. Construing the language of a statute, a court must presume that lawmakers “intended the words it chose and the plain and ordinary meaning ascribed to those words.” Any ambiguities must be resolved in favor of the person the statute is against.

When the Senate and General Assembly added the DNA-tolling exception to the statute, it used phrases such as “the person who commits a crime” and “the person who committed the crime,” and finally settled on the word ‘actor’ in place of those phrases. The final statement by the bill’s sponsor said that the exception would toll the statute of limitations until the State obtains the DNA evidence “from the suspect.”

The use of such words and phrases, the Court said, makes clear that lawmakers intended the word ‘actor’ to mean the defendant directly identified by the DNA evidence, and not others involved or implicated. The State “must have DNA evidence that establishes a ‘direct link’ between physical evidence already within its possession and the defendant it seeks to prosecute,” the Court said. It is not enough that the DNA evidence began an “investigative chain” that led to other defendants.

The Court concluded that “for the DNA-tolling provision to apply, the State must have DNA evidence that establishes a direct link between physical evidence already within its possession and the defendant it seeks to prosecute.”

But for the DNA-tolling provision, the statute of limitations expired with respect to the charges against the defendants. Since the Court ruled that the tolling provision does not apply to the defendants, they cannot be prosecuted for offenses that are time-barred based upon the expiration of the applicable statute of limitations.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Appellate Division affirming the trial court’s dismissal of the indictment and remanded to the trial court for proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: State v. Twiggs, 187 A.3d 123 (N.J. 2018). 

 

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