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March 26, 2018

High-profile New Jersey case highlights many challenges of sentencing drunk drivers who kill (and appellate review of sentences)

1360879220_amy-locane-bovenizer-lgThis local article, headlined "Former 'Melrose Place' actress to be re-sentenced -- again -- in fatal drunken crash," reports on yet another notable sentencing opinion from a high-profile state sentencing case. Here are the basics from the article, with the full opinion and follow-up thereafter:

Former "Melrose Place" actress Amy Locane who was convicted of killing a 60-year-old woman in a drunken 2010 crash will be re-sentenced -- for the second time. An appellate court ruling issued Friday lambasts the judge's lenient three-year sentence for Locane, calling it "striking."

"We expect our colleagues will agree that the sentence in this case, a hair's breath away from illegal, shocks the conscience," the appellate ruling states.

In August 2016, the state's Appellate Division ruled that the leniency granted by state Superior Court Judge Robert B. Reed in sentencing Locane in the Montgomery Township crash that killed Helene Seeman lacked enough explanation. Locane returned to court for resentencing on Jan. 17, 2017. Reed did not give her any additional jail time, angering the victim's family and leaving prosecutors bewildered.

It appears a three-judge appellate court panel is just as confused. "(Locane) went unpunished for the injuries inflicted upon Seeman, despite the fact she could have easily made alternative arrangements the night of the accident and could have easily avoided driving, was extremely intoxicated, and was engaging in risky maneuvers before the crash," the appellate ruling states. "That is an error we cannot correct."

Locane, who was driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit during the June 27, 2010, crash, was cleared of the manslaughter charge but found guilty of vehicular homicide and assault by auto.

Locane faced up to 15 years in prison. Reed imposed a sentence that was about a fifth of what she faced under the maximum penalty. He cited the former actress' two small children, including one with Crohn's disease, as a reason for the lenient sentence. Locane was out of prison in two-and-a-half years.

In a sit-down interview with NJ Advance Media in November, Locane said she hadn't touched alcohol since the crash. "I know Judge Reed went out on the limb for me and I'm not going to let him down," she said. "When someone sees the good in you like that and gives you a second chance, you don't want to disappoint them."

But Locane's fate this time around won't be up to Reed. "We are thus compelled to remand this matter for re-sentencing before a different judge," the appellate ruling says.

Locane's attorney, James Wronko, said the comments made by the appellate division about Reed "were simply unwarranted."

"Judge Reed is an excellent judge," he said. "We intend to file with the New Jersey Supreme Court to have them review the matter and then we'll proceed from there." Ironically, Wronko said, Locane was in Steinert High School in Hamilton speaking to students about the dangers of drinking and driving as the appellate court issued its ruling Friday morning.

Hard-core sentencing fans should take some time to check out the full opinion of the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division in NJ v. Locane, which runs 43 pages and is available at this link. Though a bit dense with Jersey-specific cites, this Locane opinion remarkably covers in various ways so many intricate issues of modern sentencing policy and practice.

Most fundamentally, this case highlights the challenging balance between offense and offender factors in sentencing, as the appellate court is concluding the trial court wrongfully downgraded the severity of the offense by being unduly moved my the defendant's remorse and rehabilitation. But is also, obviously, raises issue about the discretion of sentencing courts and review of that discretion on appeal. In addition, Sixth Amendment and double jeopardy issues arise in the Locane opinion. So too does the role of concurrent and consecutive sentencing, as well as punishment theory as it relates to sentencing drunk drivers (with a little hint to concerns about race, gender and class).  And the opinion's final paragraph highlights still other matters the opinion engages:

In the beginning of this opinion, we referred to the statements made by the victims during the State's presentation, pursuant to the Crime Victim's Bill of Rights, N.J.S.A. 52:4B36[n]. Their comments dovetailed the sentencing goals embodied in the Code, which in this case were not met. In Liepe, the defendant was sentenced to, in real time, life. In this case, defendant was sentenced to a NERA term of three years. The lack of uniformity is striking and in derogation of the Code.

Put slightly differently, anyone teaching a sentencing class might readily build a number of real interesting exam questions around this case and opinion.

March 26, 2018 at 10:04 AM | Permalink


The trial judge's decision is validated by the results over 5 years. Future resulst are the ultimate validation of a decision.

Mother. Still in recovery, as verified by parole officers. Lecturer to students. No prison cost. Those are good utilitarian outcomes.

The sentence is a replacement for the blood lust of the victim's family, and a substitute for endless rounds of vendettas. It is for the protection of the public. So far, the trial judge's decision has been valid for that purpose.

Appellate court judges. No more need be said.

Posted by: David Behar | Mar 26, 2018 1:00:58 PM

"The sentence is a replacement for the blood lust of the victim's family..."

Normally I would agree with this kind of sentiment except for the fact of ...

"In Liepe, the defendant was sentenced to, in real time, life. In this case, defendant was sentenced to a NERA term of three years. The lack of uniformity is striking and in derogation of the Code."

THAT is a problem. It is an especial problem when race, class, and gender are figured in.

Posted by: Humdinger | Mar 26, 2018 1:35:43 PM

For those interested, tonight's "Landmark Cases" episode on CSPAN will over Gideon v. Wainright with Katz in a couple weeks and Gregg v. Georgia later on.

One interesting aside in the opinions is Justice Clark [who showed his conservative side in various cases but joined other Warren Court opinions, including writing Mapp v. Ohio, including its right to privacy language] separately arguing:

I must conclude here [case cited] that the Constitution makes no distinction between capital and nonncapital cases. The Fourteenth Amendment requires due process of law for the deprival of "liberty," just as for deprival of "life," and there cannot constitutionally be a difference in the quality of the process based merely upon a supposed difference in the sanction involved.

But, that repeatedly was well recognized in various respects. Still, it shows the line drawn is open to debate.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 26, 2018 1:37:09 PM

I would think the life sentence far more problematic in terms of uniformity than three years. As much as we might hate drunk drivers and think them horrible and their crime horrific, it is, ultimately, an accident (and if it isn't, there are plenty of other applicable statutes).

As far as I know, intoxication manslaughter statutes are all a product of MADD-generated hysteria and craven attempts by politicians to placate them.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Mar 26, 2018 2:24:43 PM

I see the results of drunken driving as being well within the bounds of deliberate indifference. The person may not intend the result but they are reckless as to the foreseeable danger. And I see that being very different from the typical sorts of fact-pattern used to illustrate manslaughter (for example a defender killing a home invader without being placed in a life or death situation in non-castle doctrine states).

I see a great deal more culpability attaching to drunk driving; That it is far closer to 2nd or even 1st degree murder than manslaughter. Culpability-wise I really don't see much difference from someone who performs a drive-by shooting along a house.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Mar 26, 2018 3:31:55 PM

In driving simulation studies, impairment from alcohol over the legal limit, texting, and sleepiness have been shown to be the same. There is plenty of notice to this effect, in huge billboards warning against texting.

Life sentences all around? Life sentence for the diabetic whose insulin was a little excessive by mistake, and hypoglycemia is now impairing consciousness and driving.

If I could persuade people here of anything it would be of utilitarian analysis. Return to your doc, adjust the insulin schedule. Do not text. Pull over and nap for 10 minutes. Make people sleep at work before driving, including police officers. Those are cheap and effective remedies.

Sleep catastrophes: deadly train derailments, deadly ferry boat crashes, Exxon-Valdiz, Challenger disaster, Chernobyl blew top off nuclear plant, blasting a guy taking out his wallet at night by 6 officers firing 50 shots, and a $6 million payout in damages.

Life sentences for sleepiness?

Posted by: David Behar | Mar 26, 2018 4:25:59 PM

"we might hate drunk drivers and think them horrible and their crime horrific, it is, ultimately, an accident"

It is a result of intentionally doing something that the actor knows will increase the chance of horrible things happening. Not causing problems in this respect is as "accidental." The framing suggests an emotionally misguided sentiment by those who "hate" them that I continue to find misguided.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 26, 2018 5:29:16 PM

Screw it. Summary death for epileptics behind the wheel!

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Mar 26, 2018 6:06:03 PM

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