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Law School Case Brief

State v. Pomianek - 221 N.J. 66, 110 A.3d 841 (2015)

Rule:

The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, U.S. Const. amend. XIV, guarantees that no State shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. A fundamental element of due process is that a law must give fair notice of conduct that is forbidden or required. A conviction fails to comport with due process if the statute under which it is obtained fails to provide a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice of what is prohibited. A person should be on notice that he is engaged in wrongdoing before he is brought to the bar of justice for condemnation in a criminal case.

Facts:

Defendant David Pomianek, Jr. and co-defendant Michael Dorazo, Jr. were Caucasians who worked as truck drivers for the Parks and Recreation Division of the Gloucester Township Department. Steven Brodie, an African-American, worked as a laborer in the same department. The three men were assigned to work at an old garage where a cage was found. As a joke, defendants locked Brodie inside the cage for about three to five minutes and made a remark about how "throwing a banana in a cage will make Brodie go inside." From Brodie's perspective, the remark was tantamount to being called a "monkey in a cage." Brodie felt humiliated and embarrassed. Subsequently, defendants were charged in a 16-count indictment with two counts of second-degree official misconduct, 12 counts of fourth-degree bias intimidation, and two counts of third-degree hindering apprehension or prosecution. After a trial in New Jersey state court, the jury acquitted defendants on all charges, except with respect to the bias-intimidation charges. The jury reached its verdict based on two discrete findings: (1) the offenses were committed "under circumstances that caused Steven Brodie to be intimidated," and; (2) considering the manner in which those offenses were committed, Brodie "reasonably believed" either that the offenses were "committed with a purpose to intimidate him" or that "he was selected to be the target because of his race, color, national origin, or ethnicity." On appeal, the appellate division reversed the bias-intimidation conviction, concluding that a conviction "based on the victim's perception" and not on the "defendant's biased intent" violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. To save the statute (N.J.S.A. 2C:16-1(a)(3)), the appellate division construed the statute in a way that conformed to the Constitution by imposing a state-of-mind requirement. Because the predicate for the conviction of misconduct in office was the bias crime, that court panel also reversed the misconduct conviction; the matter was remanded for a new trial on both bias harassment and official misconduct. The state supreme court granted the State's petition for certification, which challenged the reversal of the bias-intimidation and misconduct-in-office convictions. The court also granted Pomianek's cross-petition for certification.

Issue:

Did N.J.S.A. 2C:16-1(a)(3), a bias-crime statute allowing conviction even when bias did not motivate the commission of the offense, violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed in part and reversed in part the appellate division's judgment and remanded the case to the trial court for entry of judgment consistent with the court's opinion. The court held that N.J.S.A. 2C:16-1(a)(3), due to its vagueness, violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court averred that N.J.S.A. 2C:16-1(a)(3) focused not on the state of the mind of the accused, but rather on the victim's perception of the accused's motivation for committing the offense. Thus, if the victim reasonably believed that the defendant committed the offense of harassment with the purpose to intimidate or target him based on his race or color, the defendant was guilty of bias intimidation. According to the court, in focusing on the victim's perception and not on the defendant's intent, the statute failed to give defendant a sufficient guidance or notice of what was prohibited; thereby, a defendant would not know how to conform to the law. The court thus reversed Pomianek's bias-intimidation convictions as well as his official-misconduct conviction, which was predicated on the bias-crime finding.

However, the court disagreed with the appellate division that the courts could rewrite N.J.S.A. 2C:16-1(a)(3) to impose the same state-of-mind requirements found in N.J.S.A. 2C:16-1(a)(1). That level of judicial tinkering with legislation exceeded the bounds of the judiciary's authority, the court ruled. As Pomianek's convictions were invalid on due process grounds, the court declined to address the First Amendment issues on which the appellate division premised its holding.

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