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New Jersey Supreme Court Holds 2014 Amendment to Megan’s Law Violates Ex Post Facto Clause

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a 2014 amendment to the Violent Predator Incapacitation Act (“VPIA”), part of Megan’s Law, which applied to defendants who had violated their community supervision for life (“CSL”), violated the Ex Post Facto Clauses of the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions. That’s because a violation of CSL is not a new offense but relates back to the original offense.

When four defendants in separate, unrelated cases violated their conditions of CSL, the four were charged under the 2014 amendment to the VPIA. That increased their violations from fourth-degree to third-degree offenses and would convert their CSL to parole supervision for life (“PSL”), resulting in harsher consequences than the law provided at the time of their criminal conduct a decade ago. The trial courts presiding over the four separate cases tossed the indictments, holding that imposing the harsher punishments under the 2014 amendment violated the Ex Post Facto clause. The State appealed, but the Appellate Division affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted the State’s petition for certification and consolidated the four cases for appeal.

Under CSL, those convicted of sex-based offenses are subject to several conditions—more than 20 in this case. A violation of any of those conditions results in a new charge. Prior to the 2014 amendment to the VPIA, a violation constituted a fourth-degree offense punishable by up to 18 months in prison. The amendment increased that punishment to a third-degree offense punishable by three to five years in prison and also required conversion of CSL to PSL, meaning the offender would be in the custody of the Department of Corrections for life while on parole. Moreover, a prison term is mandatory under the new law.

The defendants argued that the 2014 amendment could not apply to them because a violation of CSL relates back to the original offense and imposing a harsher punishment enacted after the commission of the offense violates the Ex Post Facto Clauses of the both the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions. The State argued that the violations themselves were new crimes and subject to the new law now in effect. The Supreme Court rejected that argument and agreed with the defendants.

The Court observed that the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions both prohibit lawmakers from passing an “ex post facto” law. U.S. Const., art. I, sec. 10, cl. 1; N.J. Const., art. IV, sec. 7, para. 3. The U.S. Supreme Court has explained that an ex post facto law is a “law that changes the punishment, and inflicts a greater punishment, than the law annexed to the crime, when committed.” Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. 386 (1798). The Ex Post Facto Clauses ensure that citizens can rely on laws until they are explicitly changed and restricts the government from passing potentially vindictive laws.

The Court held that applying the 2014 amendment to the defendants violated the Ex Post Facto Clauses because PSL and CSL are punishments imposed for the original commission of a crime. In State v. Perez, 220 N.J. 423 (2015), the New Jersey Supreme Court noted that the “legislature has manifested that CSL and PSL were and are intended to be penal rather than remedial post-sentence supervisory schemes.” Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that “postrevocation penalties relate to the original offense.” Johnson v. United States, 529 U.S. 694 (2000). Thus, violations of CSL and PSL are not new offenses, as the State argued.

Accordingly, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the indictments against the defendants. See: State v. Hester, 186 A.3d 236 (N.J. 2018). 

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Related legal case

State v. Hester



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