New Jersey Court Explains the Right to Confront Witnesses in Criminal Matters

Criminal defendants are afforded the right to confront any witnesses that testify against them by both the New Jersey and the United States Constitutions. Thus, if a defendant is denied the right to cross-examine a witness, it may result in a miscarriage of justice. There are some limitations to the right to confront witnesses, though, that may constrain a defendant’s right to question a witness regarding certain topics. Recently, a New Jersey court addressed the issue of whether a criminal defendant that is charged with the same crime as a cooperating witness may question the witness regarding his sentencing exposure. If you are charged with a criminal offense, it is essential to retain a dedicated New Jersey criminal defense attorney who will fight to help you seek a just outcome.

Facts of the Case

It is reported that the defendant, the witness, and another individual were arrested and charged with burglary. The witness accepted a cooperating plea offer, agreeing to testify against the defendant and the other individual in exchange for a three-year sentence. The trial judge suggested a modification of the agreement, which ultimately resulted in a reduced sentence of one hundred and eighty days in jail, followed by probation. The witness then testified against the defendant at trial.

Allegedly, in an attempt to establish the bias of the witness, the defendant’s counsel tried to question the witness regarding his plea negotiations and the sentence he would have faced if he had not agreed to testify against the defendant. The trial court barred the attorney from asking such questions, however, stating that it could prejudice the jury. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, after which he appealed, arguing that the trial court’s limitation of his cross-examination of the witness deprived him of his right to confrontation.

The Right to Confront a Cooperating Witness

The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Paragraph 10 of Article 1 of the New Jersey Constitution provide criminal defendants with the right to confront any witnesses that testify against them. Further, defendants are permitted to question witnesses regarding their motives for testifying and to explore the possible bias of any witness presented by the State. A court may impose reasonable limitations on cross-examination, however, as is needed to prevent harassment, confusion of the issues, or to protect the witness. In doing so, the trial court will assess whether the facts of the case reasonably support the inference of bias and whether the proposed line of questioning presents any concerns.

In the subject case, the appellate court noted that the witness’ testimony was the sole evidence the State presented against the defendant, and as a prior offender, the witness faced significant penalties if he was convicted. Thus, the appellate court found that the evidence suggested that the witness may have had strong incentives to cooperate with the State. As such, it ruled that the trial court erred in prohibiting the defendant’s attorney from asking the witness questions regarding his plea bargain and potential sentencing exposure. Thus, the defendant’s conviction was vacated, and the matter was remanded for a new trial.

Confer with a Capable New Jersey Attorney

The law provides criminal defendants with many rights, including the right to question adverse witnesses. If you are accused of committing burglary or another crime in New Jersey, it is critical to speak to an attorney regarding your rights. The capable New Jersey criminal defense attorneys of The Law Offices of Jonathan F. Marshall are proficient at helping people charged with crimes fight to protect their interests, and we can help you pursue the best result available under the facts of your case. You can contact us at 877-450-8301 or via our online form to set up a conference.

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