State v. Ramirez, A-1-21

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Writing for the CourtSABATINO, JUDGE (temporarily assigned)
PartiesState of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Oscar Ramirez, Defendant-Appellant.
Docket NumberA-1-21,085943
Decision Date21 November 2022

State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.

Oscar Ramirez, Defendant-Appellant.

Nos. A-1-21, 085943

Supreme Court of New Jersey

November 21, 2022


Argued September 28, 2022

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SYLLABUS

This syllabus is not part of the Court's opinion. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Court and may not summarize all portions of the opinion.

In this appeal, the Court considers the conflicting rights of a sexual assault victim -- to decline to participate in an investigation and to enjoy solitude at home -and a person accused of a sexual offense -- to receive an effective defense, to assert the right to confrontation and compulsory process of witnesses, and to due process -in the context of a prosecutor's motion for a protective order relieving the prosecution of its obligation to supply a victim's residential address to defense counsel.

D.C., a twenty-three-year-old woman, was sexually assaulted shortly after midnight on October 25, 2019, in a North Bergen cemetery. The victim stated that the attacker held a box cutter to her neck and told her to be quiet or he would kill her. Based on surveillance footage collected from that night, the police identified defendant Oscar Ramirez as the attacker. The police arrested defendant, who had previously been convicted of two assaults that arose out of initial charges of alleged sexual contact. Defendant gave a statement in which he denied -- without being asked about the attack -- having committed "the rape" but identified himself as the man shown in the surveillance footage and stated that he had previously killed people. Laboratory results matched defendant's DNA to swabs taken from the victim, and defendant was charged with multiple offenses related to the incident.

When supplying pretrial discovery to defense counsel, the prosecution redacted the address where the victim lived at the time of the offense and also declined to provide the new address to which she moved after the attack. To justify withholding that information, the prosecution moved for a protective order under Rule 3:13-3(e) and submitted a sworn certification from an assistant prosecutor asserting that the victim did not want her address to be provided to the defense, that she was afraid defendant or someone close to him would locate her, and that she did not want to speak to the defense before trial. Defense counsel opposed the motion, arguing that Rule 3:13-3(e) required the prosecution to provide the victim's contact information to the defense, even if defendant himself is not allowed to have access.

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The motion judge granted the prosecutor's motion in part, ordering that the address be disclosed to defendant's counsel, who would not be permitted to disclose any of the information to the defendant. Notably, the judge's written decision did not discuss the statutory or constitutional rights of sexual assault victims, beyond citing the Court's recognition in State v. R.W., 104 N.J. 14, 28 (1986), that there is a "heightened need to protect victims from trauma and intimidation in sexual assault cases." More specifically, the judge did not cite to the Victim's Rights Amendment, the Crime Victim's Bill of Rights, or the Sexual Assault Victim's Bill of Rights. The Appellate Division reversed, stressing that "to permit defense investigators to access the victim's home, against her expressed instructions," would violate her right to privacy. 467 N.J.Super. 359, 369 (App. Div. 2021). The Court granted leave to appeal. 248 N.J. 252 (2021)

HELD: After reviewing the relevant statutes and authorities that must be considered in balancing the competing interests and rights of a sexual assault victim and the person accused of the sexual offense, the Court sets forth a framework of procedures and considerations to apply going forward when a prosecutor seeks to withhold from discovery a sexual assault victim's address. Because neither the ruling of the trial court nor that of the Appellate Division sufficiently addresses the competing interests explored in the Court's opinion, the Court remands the matter for a more fulsome balancing of the competing interests.

1. Rule 3:13-3 governs the prosecution's general discovery obligations and the contested motion for a protective order in this case. Under Rule 3:13-3(a) and (b)(1), once an indictment has issued, a defendant has a right to automatic and broad discovery of the evidence the State has gathered in support of its charges. Reciprocally, under Rule 3:13-3(b)(2), defense counsel must supply the prosecution with similarly broad categories of items. Rule 3: 13-3(b)(1)(F) specifically imposes upon the prosecutor an obligation to provide a defendant post-indictment with a witness's address. Nevertheless, criminal discovery has its limits, and information must be shown to be relevant to the issues in the case in order to be subject to disclosure. Another important limit on a defendant's right to discovery is the chilling and inhibiting effect that discovery can have on material witnesses who are subject to intimidation, harassment, or embarrassment. Rule 3: 13-3(e) details how the prosecution may obtain a protective order from the court, allowing it to withhold from the defense certain discovery that otherwise would be mandated. A trial court considers "the totality of the circumstances" in determining whether good cause exists to grant the motion. One factor the court may consider when evaluating good cause is the "protection of witnesses and others from physical harm [and] threats of harm"; another is "confidential information recognized by law." R. 3:13-3(e)(1). Appellate courts defer to a trial court's ruling on a motion for a protective order unless the trial court abused its discretion or its determination is based on a mistaken understanding of the applicable law. (pp. 15-21)

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2. The Court reviews in detail the legislative enactments, constitutional amendment, and court rules that afford enhanced protections to sexual assault victims and other crime victims in New Jersey. Together, the authorities reviewed by the Court reflect a robust codified public policy to protect sexual assault victims in this State from undue incursions upon their rights of privacy and solitude and the Legislature's recognition that victims can re-experience trauma each time they discuss the violent incident. (pp. 21-28)

3. Weighing against those important rights of a victim are the countervailing rights of a person accused of a criminal offense, protected expressly or impliedly by the federal and New Jersey Constitutions and decades of jurisprudence. Conceptually, they encompass the rights (1) to the effective assistance of counsel in defending the case, (2) to confront the prosecution's witnesses at trial and to have the compulsory process of exculpatory witnesses, and (3) to due process. The Court reviews the nature and scope of each of those rights. Significantly, the right to the effective assistance of counsel in a criminal proceeding includes the right to conduct a reasonable investigation to prepare a defense, but that right is not absolute and has been balanced in case law against the victim's privacy rights. The constitutionally granted right to compulsory process permits a defendant to call and examine witnesses as part of the defense, and the Supreme Court of the United States has recognized that asking a witness during cross-examination where that witness lives is important to the exercise of the related right of confrontation. Again, however, those rights are not absolute, and trial judges have discretion to limit cross-examination if it invades the witness's constitutional rights or merely seeks to harass, annoy, or humiliate the witness. Finally, the Due Process Clause gives defendants the right of access to adverse witnesses during the investigation phase of the defense. State v. Blazas, 432 N.J.Super. 326, 340 (App. Div. 2013). Even so, because a witness has the "absolute and personal right to either grant or deny" a pretrial interview, "the protected [due process] right is the opportunity for pretrial access; it is not a guarantee of pretrial access." See id. at 343-46. A witness's decision must be a personal one, however; any prosecutorial "interference with a witness's decision to grant or deny an interview to the defense . . . deprives a defendant of his right to present a complete defense." Id. at 343. (pp. 28-35)

4. Relying on principles distilled from the authorities reviewed, the Court holds that, going forward, certain procedures and considerations apply when a prosecutor seeks to withhold from discovery a sexual assault victim's address:

The prosecution must move for a protective order under Rule 3: 13-3(e). The motion must be supported by a sworn statement from the victim attesting the victim does not want the address disclosed to the defendant or defense counsel. If such a motion is filed, the defense may file a response with the court expressing reasons

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why a protective order should be denied and, in particular, why the defense needs the victim's address. The trial court may permit a reply by the prosecutor.

If the defense asserts it wants the address, among other things, for the purpose of contacting and interviewing the victim, the court shall then consider various "supervised pathway" options designed to assure that the victim's decision is personal and also that the victim has been made aware of the defense's reasons for wanting the address and to make contact. The supervised pathway options include, but are not limited to, a written request by the defense that the court may permit to be conveyed to the victim through the prosecutor or court staff; an in camera interview of the victim by the judge; a limited call between defense counsel and the victim; or another court-devised option that would fairly balance...

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