Under the Criminal Justice Reform Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:162-15 to -26 (CJRA), defendants have the right to be released two years after a judge orders them detained, excluding delays attributable to the defendant, if the prosecutor is not ready to proceed to trial.  N.J.S.A. 2A:162-22(a)(2)(a).  The statute does not, however, address what happens when the parties are ready to proceed, but there are not enough courtrooms or judges to try the case—as has occurred in New Jersey as a result of the COVID pandemic.

In State v. Mackroy-Davis, 251 N.J. 217, 222 (2022), the New Jersey Supreme Court granted the defendant’s motion for leave to appeal to address the very narrow question of whether the defendant’s statutory right to a speedy trial was violated.  Id. at 221.  The Court set forth that:

For the criminal justice system in particular, the consequences of the pandemic have been substantial.  Consistent with guidance from public health officials, the Judiciary for more than a year was unable to summon jurors, witnesses, lawyers, court staff, and the parties for in-person jury trials.  As a result, the Court on its own entered fourteen omnibus orders that tolled the clock for the start of criminal trials for a total of 461 days. . . .  Those developments inevitably led to an increase in the number of pending cases.

[Id. at 224.]

In Mackroy-Davis, the defendant was arrested on November 11, 2019 in connection with a drive-by shooting during which one person was killed.  Id. at 222.  On December 23, 2019, the trial judge granted the State’s motion to detain the defendant pending trial on the basis that he posed a danger to the public and there was a risk of his non-appearance.  Id. at 223.  On February 13, 2020, a grand jury returned an indictment against the defendant and two codefendants charging them with first degree murder, first degree conspiracy to commit murder, and fourth degree obstruction.  Ibid.  Thereafter, on October 21, 2021, during the height of the pandemic, the State obtained a superseding indictment adding three new charges against the defendant–aggravated assault and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault.  Id. at 230.

In November 2021, the trial court ordered a total of 218 days in excludable time “due to extenuating circumstances,” namely, the trial court’s “inability, essentially, to move cases more than one at a time,” the “backlog of defendants” since the start of the pandemic, and courtroom unavailability.  Ibid.   The trial court set a trial date of April 22, 2022.  Ibid.  At a status conference on January 3, 2022, the State declared it was “trial ready.”  Ibid.  The trial had, however, not started at the time of oral argument on the defendant’s motion before the New Jersey Supreme Court on April 26, 2022.  Id. at 222.

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the defendant’s statutory right to a speedy trial had not been violated “[b]ecause the prosecution announced it was ready to proceed to trial at the two-year mark.”  Id. at 222.  The Court explained that under the CJRA, defendants shall be released from jail, after a hearing to consider conditions of release, if “the prosecutor is not ready to proceed” two years after the court ordered the defendant detained.  N.J.S.A. 2A:162-22(a)(2)(a).  The CJRA considers the State ready if the prosecutor is prepared “to proceed to voir dire or to opening argument, or to the hearing of any motions that had been reserved for the time of trial,” and only “delays attributable to the” defendant can be excluded from the two-year cap.  Ibid. (quoting N.J.S.A. 2A:162-22(a)(2)(a)).

The Court found that no party disputed that the COVID-19 pandemic qualified as a “natural disaster” and thus an “exceptional circumstance” under the CJRA, and thus the parties had agreed that January 3, 2022, marked the end of the two-year cap.  Id. at 229, 233.  At the brief conference on January 3, 2022, the trial court confirmed that defendant’s trial was set to start on April 22, 2022.  Id. at 233.  The State twice stated that it was ready to proceed, but neither defense counsel nor the trial court asked “the State to clarify whether it was ready to proceed to trial on the day of the conference — the actual date of the two-year cap.”  Ibid.  The Court found that because the State represented it was ready to proceed on January 3, 2022, there was no statutory violation of the two-year cap.  Id. at 234.

The Court set forth, however, that “[t]he prosecutor’s statement of readiness does not end all concerns about a defendant’s continued detention.  The overall structure of the CJRA and section 26 in particular, make clear the Legislature was concerned about lengthy pretrial delays for detained defendants.  Yet a statement of readiness can effectively extend the two-year cap, and a defendant’s pretrial detention, if the court is not able to proceed.”  Id. at 235.

Therefore, the Court relied on its “supervisory authority to impose the following measures when the parties announce they are ready to proceed on the two-year cap date but no courtroom or judge will be available at that time.”  Id. at 235-36.  First, if the State is ready to proceed and the defendant is also prepared but no courtroom or judge is available for reasons related to the pandemic (not routine scheduling matters), the trial court must consult with a supervisory judge to coordinate trial dates from a vicinage-wide perspective, with cases involving detained defendants to receive priority.  Id. at 236.  “Second, if the parties are ready but the trial cannot start before the two-year cap expires, trial judges should schedule conferences at monthly intervals rather than delay a trial for multiple months at a time.”  Ibid. Third, assistant prosecutors and public defenders should notify their respective supervisors when a trial date is fixed to ensure that counsel will be present and the trial will commence as planned.  Id. at 237.  Lastly, because a detained defendant’s liberty is at stake when a trial cannot start at the two-year cap, it may be necessary to reassign judges from their responsibilities elsewhere in the court system to try criminal cases.  Id. at 237.

Criminal law, particularly after the measures taken by our Supreme Court during the COVID pandemic, is constantly changing and/or being refined by our courts.  If you are facing criminal charges you should immediately reach out to our team of experienced former prosecutors to schedule a free case review with one of our expert criminal defense attorneys. A complete understanding of criminal law by your attorney is crucial to your defense. Your rights and freedoms are in jeopardy, and you owe it to yourself to act. We are available to provide immediate assistance and further counsel on your criminal case at (862) 315-7929.