Content Regulation / Censorship, Gender Expression, Indecency / Obscenity
The State v. Momar Sowe and Alieu Sarr
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Based solely on John Tate’s plea hearing testimony that he cursed in front of his foster child, the court accepted Tate’s guilty plea. Later, Tate motioned to have the plea withdrawn, but the court denied this motion. Because the lower court did not evaluate if Tate’s specific words were prohibited by the statute, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the statements at the plea hearing were not sufficient to sustain a guilty plea. It vacated Tate’s plea and remanded the case.
In 2004, the defendant, John Tate, was charged with sexual assault and child abuse for his treatment of his foster son. During the plea hearing, the defendant’s counsel asked Tate about his treatment of the child, including the language that Tate used around the child. Tate responded affirmatively that he had used off-color language in the child’s presence, and he requested that the court accept his plea. The court accept his plea, which it found to be knowing and voluntary, and the court found that there was an adequate factual basis to support the charges against Tate.
In 2010, Tate motioned to withdraw his guilty plea, and he did so by claiming a lack of adequate factual basis to support this plea. The lower court denied the motion to withdraw, citing State v. Slater. Slater sets forth the standards for withdrawing a plea, even when the plea is supported by an adequate factual basis. After denying the defendant’s motion, the court dismissed the remaining charges and sentenced Tate to time served. The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s opinion.
In its decision, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has overturned the decision of Appellate Division. Per N.J.S.A. 3:9-2, the court cannot accept a guilty plea unless the defendant has provided the court with a “factual basis,” which establishes that he or she is guilty. Therefore, if the defendant disputes his guilt or does not acknowledge the facts supporting his guilt, the court must reject the defendant’s guilty plea.
The Supreme Court noted that the trial court accepted Tate’s guilty plea based solely on Tate’s assertions that he had cursed and used off-color language in the presence of his foster child. The lower court did not further inquire about the specific wording that Tate used, and, therefore, the court did not assess where Tate’s language was specifically prohibited by N.J.S.A. 9:6-1(d). The court held that, based on Tate’s plea colloquy alone, the lower court could not have effectively decided that Tate had admitted to committing child abuse.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the trial and appellate courts. Tate’s plea was vacated and his indictment was reinstated. The matter was also remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.
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