Newark, NJ- When a minor in New Jersey is charged with a criminal offense, most of the time their cases will be resolved in the Family Part of the state court system. Sometimes, when a crime is serious, the state can request a juvenile’s case be moved to adult court, but there are no formal rules about what evidence the state should disclose to defendants and defense counsel when it issues a juvenile waiver.
When the state wishes to move a defendant from the Family Part to adult criminal court, they must issue a waiver and set up a hearing. The waiver hearing is critical for juvenile defendants because they have fewer sentencing alternatives and face tougher penalties if they are tried as an adult. However, in spite of the high stakes juvenile offenders face when their cases are moved to adult court, the rules of discovery have been unclear. That changed after a recent New Jersey Supreme Court which was decided on August 10, 2016.
The case before the Court, State of New Jersey in the Interest of N.H., involved a 17-year-old New Jersey high school student who was involved in a fatal shooting. The teen was charged with several juvenile offenses, including homicide and unlawful possession of a gun, so the state issued a juvenile waiver, requesting his case be moved to adult criminal court. When the state filed the juvenile waiver, prosecutors withheld some evidence from the defense because they did not intend to use it in the waiver hearing.
The young defendant filed a motion asking for full discovery before his waiver and the trial court granted his request. The Appellate Court also agreed with the juvenile defendant noting that neither the New Jersey Code of Juvenile Justice or court rules address the disclosure of evidence in waiver hearings.
The case was appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which was asked to clarify the rules of how evidence is disclosed in juvenile cases.
In the decision, justices noted that in the Family Part, when a juvenile complaint is filed, the state is obligated to turn over any evidence obtained, affirming that juveniles deserve full discovery before their trials. The court determined juveniles are also entitled to full discovery before waiver hearings and ordered the state to turn over all evidence so their counsel can “prepare for all facets of the hearing.” The NJ Supreme Court also instructed the state to disclose evidence as it is discovered, adding if they need to redact any information, they must file a motion with the court.
The court instructed the Family Practice and Criminal Practice Committees to develop a rule to ensure “timely discovery in juvenile proceedings.” This decision will ensure that the state fully discloses any evidence they plan on presenting when a juvenile case is moved to adult court.
The decision, in this case, is important because it means juveniles facing a waiver to adult court are entitled to full discovery of evidence. As a criminal defense attorney, I understand the importance of decisions like this one. I also understand the critical role evidence plays in each of my clients’ defense.
If you have been charged with a crime in Newark, Jersey City or Elizabeth, contact my office at 973-453-2009, and we can discuss your charges and what defense strategy we can utilize to minimize the potential consequences you face.