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New Jersey Supreme Court: Youth May Be Considered as a Mitigating Factor but Not Aggravating Factor in Sentencing

by David M. Reutter

The Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a defendant’s youth may be considered only as a mitigating factor in sentencing and cannot support an aggravating factor as to whether the defendant would commit another offense under N.J.S.A § 2C:44-1(a)(3).

That holding was issued in an appeal by Cynthia Rivera. She admitted to planning and participating in the armed robbery of Justin Garcia, resulting in serious injuries to Garcia and the murder of his friend, Andrew Torres. At the time of the offenses, Rivera was 18 years old and in a relationship with Martin Martinez.

Rivera met and went to a motel with a friend, Garcia, and Torres. Once there, she texted Martinez the name of the hotel, so he “could come down … to commit the robbery.” The next morning, Martinez and another man arrived at the motel and knocked on the door to Garcia’s room. Torres was shot and killed upon opening the door. Garcia was shot and seriously wounded. Jewelry and a phone were taken from Garcia.

Rivera’s friend identified her as a culprit, and Rivera turned herself in a few weeks later. She subsequently pleaded guilty to reduced charges of aggravated manslaughter, aggravated assault, and conspiracy to commit robbery. In exchange for the plea and Rivera’s promise to cooperate with the State, the State agreed to the reduced charges and recommended an aggregate sentence of 15 years in prison subject to New Jersey’s No Early Release Act.

At the time of sentencing, Rivera was 19 years old with no prior criminal history, no juvenile record, and no arrests. She expressed deep regret for her actions and told the court she had severed her relationship with Martinez despite the fact she had given birth to his son. She also said she planned to enroll in the cosmetology certification in prison.

The sentencing court considered aggravating and mitigating factors, finding the aggravating factors substantially outweighed the mitigating. It sentenced Rivera to 15 years in prison for aggravated manslaughter, 10 years in prison for aggravated assault, and 10 years for conspiracy to commit murder, to run concurrently, with an 85% period of parole ineligibility.

Rivera appealed, arguing that youth may only be considered as a mitigating factor and never as an aggravating factor. The Appellate Court affirmed, and the New Jersey Supreme Court granted review.

The high court noted that a sentencing court must not only balance aggravating and mitigating factors in exercising its sentencing discretion, but it is also required to “view a defendant as [that defendant] stands before the court on the day of sentencing.” State v. Jaffe, 104 A.3d 214 (N.J. 2014).

In applying and affording great weight to aggravating factor three—risk of re-offense—the sentencing court relied on the nature of the offense, defendant’s role in planning the crime, and luring the victims into a trap. In explaining the decision to afford minimal weight to the countervailing mitigating factor seven—lack of prior criminal conduct—the sentencing court stated that because of her youth Rivera “hasn’t had enough time to begin … a history of criminal activity.”

The Court found that reasoning was “based on an impermissible presumption.” Aggravating factor three requires “evidence demonstrating a likelihood of re-offense—be it expert testimony, or the defendant’s criminal history, lack of remorse, premeditation, or other competent evidence.” The sentencing court impermissibly speculated that Rivera “would have engaged in other criminal conduct but did not have the opportunity to do so because of her youth,” the Court stated.

That finding was made despite the fact Rivera had never been arrested or adjudicated delinquent as a juvenile. Also, the State conceded mitigating factor nine—defendant is unlikely to reoffend. The sentencing court ignored that factor.

The Court held that “youth may be considered only as a mitigating factor in sentencing and cannot support an aggravating factor.” The sentencing court’s presumption that youth might have kept Rivera from having a criminal record cannot be used as an aggravating factor, the Court declared and vacated her sentence.

On remand, the sentencing court was directed to consider Rivera as she stands before the court on the day of sentencing, which is as a first-time offender who expressed remorse, cooperated with the State, and has educational plans. As the legislature on October 19, 2020, adopted youth as a statutory mitigating factor (“the defendant was under 26 years of age at the time of the commission of the offense”), the sentencing court should consider that factor, the Court instructed.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgement of the Court of Appeals and remanded for resentencing. See: State v. Rivera, 265 A.3d 134 (N.J. 2021). 

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Related legal case

State v. Rivera

 

 

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