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New Jersey crime victims have a bill of rights, but it doesn’t hold up against the rights constitutionally guaranteed to criminal defendants, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled. State v. Means, No. A-21-06. The court said that a prosecutor’s failure to notify the victim and her family about the defendant’s plea bargain in a child sexual assault case is insufficient ground to set it aside. “The trial court should consider the concerns of the victim or the victim’s family, but the court may not impinge on a defendant’s constitutional rights,” the court said. The high court ordered that an initial plea to child endangerment and unrelated robbery charges be reinstated, and they vacated a second plea, one that carried a greater sentence. The initial plea would have imposed a maximum jail term of 13 years on Raheem Means of Newark, N.J., charged with sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl and five unrelated robberies. But the girl’s father found out about the plea shortly before sentencing and objected. The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, acknowledging that one of its assistants had failed to keep the family informed, asked that the plea be vacated. F. Michael Giles, an intermediate appellate court judge, allowed prosecutors to withdraw the plea offer. Means pleaded guilty to an enhanced charge, carrying a 15-year sentence. He appealed Giles’ decision. The high court reversed. Writing on behalf of the majority, Justice John Wallace Jr. said Giles erred because the plea bargain was valid, even though it may have violated the spirit and intent of the Victim’s Rights Amendment to the New Jersey Constitution and the state’s Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights. Both the amendment, N.J. Const. art. I, � 22, and the bill of rights, N.J. Stat. Ann. �� 52:4B-34 to -38, require prosecutors to keep the victim informed about the process and progress of a case. The state attorney general has issued a directive that victims’ views should be taken into account before a plea agreement is offered. Those rights and standards notwithstanding, due process concerns inhibit the ability of a prosecutor to withdraw from a guilty plea, since the defendant has made a voluntary and knowing waiver of constitutional rights. Wallace acknowledged that a judge may vacate a plea if he or she determines it would not be in the best interests of justice. Wallace also noted that a defendant may withdraw from a plea, but only after meeting a heightened burden of proof of showing it is unfair. However, “Our Rules do not contain a corresponding right of the State to withdraw from a plea agreement.” “Rather than granting the State’s motion to vacate the pleas, the trial court should have postponed sentencing to allow the prosecutor time to notify the victim of the terms of the plea agreement, receive and evaluate the victim’s comments, and inform them of their right to speak at sentencing.” Wallace likened a plea agreement to a contract. “When two parties reach a meeting of the minds and consideration is present, the agreement should be enforced,” he said. “Valid consideration exists to support the agreement. The unilateral mistake made by the prosecutor, standing alone, was not sufficient to invalidate the plea agreement. “To hold otherwise defeats the proper goal of finality that lies at the core of all plea bargaining: it will have the unintended effect of permitting defendants to negotiate a guilty plea, yet lie in wait to spring what should have been waived issues in an unending quest to better the deal they negotiated,” he said. Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto, in a dissent, said Means’ appeal was not properly before the court since he did not preserve the issue after Giles vacated the original plea and before he agreed to the second plea bargain.

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