In State v. Ryan, 249 N.J. 581, 586 (2022), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that because the defendant had committed his third offense and received an enhanced sentence of life without parole as an adult, the constitutional constraints embodied in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and State v. Zuber, 227 N.J. 422 (2017), which prohibit the imposition of mandatory life-without-parole sentences or their functional equivalent on juvenile offenders, were not implicated.  The Court also reaffirmed the constitutionality of New Jersey’s Three Strikes Law, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.1, holding that the mandatory life-without-parole sentence imposed on the defendant under that statute did not violate the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  State v. Ryan, 249 N.J. at 586, 602.

In the winter of 1996, at the age of twenty-three, the defendant Samuel Ryan robbed a New Jersey gas station at gunpoint, stole $100 and shot a store clerk in the process.  Id. at 585.  The offense resulted in the defendant’s third first-degree robbery conviction, and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole pursuant to the Persistent Offender Accountability Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.1(a), known as the “Three Strikes Law.”  Ibid.  The imposition of the Three Strikes Law was predicated upon the defendant’s convictions for:  1) two counts of first degree robbery, when he was a sixteen-year old juvenile; 2) first degree robbery of a WaWa, when he was a twenty-three year old adult; and 3) first degree robbery of a gas station and first degree attempted murder, when he was a twenty-three year old adult.   Id. at 587.

In 2018, the defendant filed his twelfth post-conviction relief (PCR) petition, a motion to correct an illegal sentence, relying on the holding in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, and the holding in State v. Zuber, 227 N.J. 422 (2017), that juveniles cannot be sentenced to the functional equivalent of life without parole.  State v. Ryan, 249 N.J. at 588-589.  The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, finding that Miller and Zuber did not apply because the defendant received his enhanced life sentence as an adult.  Id. at 589.  The Appellate Division affirmed.  Ibid.  The New Jersey Supreme Court granted the defendant’s petition for certification to consider whether a defendant’s prior juvenile-age conviction counts as a predicate offense under the Three Strikes Law.  Ibid.

New Jersey’s Three Strikes Law, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.1, “imposes a mandatory sentence of life without parole upon any person convicted on three separate occasions of certain violent crimes, including murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault, kidnapping, sexual assault, and robbery.”  Id. at 593-94.

The Court in Ryan set forth that in determining whether punishment is cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 12 of the New Jersey Constitution, it applies a three-part inquiry:  1) Does the punishment for the crime conform with contemporary standards of decency;  2) Is the punishment grossly disproportionate to the offense; and 3) Does the punishment go beyond what is necessary to accomplish any legitimate penological objective?  Id.  at 593.  The Court explained that in State v. Oliver, 162 N.J. 580, 588 (2000), it applied the three-part inquiry and had held that “the Three Strikes Law does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”  State v. Ryan, 249 N.J. at 595.

Thereafter, in Miller, 567 U.S. at 465, the United States Supreme Court held that mandatory life-without-parole sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment when imposed on juvenile offenders.  And in Zuber, 227 N.J. at 429-30, the Court “built upon this federal juvenile sentencing jurisprudence and extended application of the Miller factors to situations where a juvenile is facing a term of imprisonment that is the practical equivalent to life without parole.”  State v. Ryan, 249 N.J. at 596.

Nevertheless, the Court in Ryan held that “application of the three-factor test for cruel and unusual punishment utilized in Miller and Zuber to the Three Strikes Law leads us to the same conclusion today as it did over twenty years ago in Oliver, 162 N.J. 580.  The Three Strikes Law and its application to defendant are both constitutionally permissible.”  State v. Ryan, 249 N.J. at 596.  The Court found that “[f]irst, a survey of other jurisdictions demonstrates that the Three Strikes Law continues to conform to contemporary standards of decency.”  Id. at 596-97.  “Second, an enhanced life-without-parole sentence is not grossly disproportionate where the offense is a dangerous and violent first-degree crime, such as armed robbery or attempted murder, the offenses for which defendant here received his final strike.”  Id. at 597.  Third, “and most importantly, the punishment serves the legitimate penological objective of incapacitating serious third-time offenders.”  Id. at 598.

The Court found that the “defendant received his enhanced sentence on his third armed robbery conviction, having already served three and a third years of a ten-year prison sentence for his first offense, committed at the age of sixteen.”  Ibid.  The “[d]efendant was not only undeterred by incarceration, but his crimes committed after release from state prison grew increasingly violent: defendant assaulted two Wawa employees during the commission of his first post-release offense and then, before his arrest, shot a store clerk during his final robbery.”  Ibid.  “In sum, defendant’s sentence accords with all elements of the three-part test and therefore does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment within the meaning of the Federal or State Constitution.”  Ibid.

Moreover, the Court found that “there is nothing in Miller or Zuber that precludes application of a recidivist statute such as the Three Strikes Law to an adult defendant who meets the carefully considered statutory requirements set by the Legislature.”  Id. at 601.  “Indeed, as [the Court] made clear in Oliver, the enhanced sentence under the Three Strikes Law is not imposed ‘as either a new jeopardy or additional penalty for earlier crimes,’ but instead as a ‘stiffened penalty for the latest crime.'”  Ibid. (quoting State v. Oliver, 162 N.J. at 586).  “As an adult who committed a third armed robbery, defendant satisfied the statutory preconditions of the Three Strikes Law and was sentenced accordingly.”  Ibid.

The recent case of State v. Ryan, 249 N.J. 581, is important because it upheld a juvenile conviction as a predicate offense to application of the Three Strikes Law.  If you are facing criminal charges, including charges as a juvenile, 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) 314-7929.