State v. Melvin


New Jersey


New Jersey Supreme Court

Citation and Year

248 N.J. 321 ( 2021)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

NJ Constitution Art. I, Para. 1 (due process equivalent, applied through “doctrine of fundamental fairness”)

Nature of Case

Melvin was indicted on nine counts related to a fatal shooting, including charges of murder, aggravated assault, weapon possession, and drug possession. A jury found him guilty only on the weapons charge. He was eventually acquitted of the murder and aggravated assault charges, and prosecutors dismissed the drug charges.

The trial court had discretion to sentence Melvin to a range of 10-20 years and chose the maximum, citing Melvin’s conduct specifically related to the murder charges. After the Appellate Court affirmed both the conviction and sentence, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to hear the case “limited to the issue of whether the sentencing judge could consider defendant’s conduct even though the jury acquitted defendant of the underlying crimes.” 240 N.J. 549 (2020).


Judges cannot rely on acquitted conduct to impose a higher sentence: “We hold that the findings of juries cannot be nullified through lower-standard fact findings at sentencing. … Fundamental fairness simply cannot let stand the perverse result of allowing in through the back door at sentencing conduct that the jury rejected at trial.”


In its unanimous opinion, the Court pointed to another protection for criminal defendants in the state constitution: “Our Constitution’s guarantee of the right to a criminal trial by jury is ‘inviolate,’” Justice Pierre-Lewis wrote, referencing N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 9. “In order to protect that right, we cannot allow the finality of a jury’s not-guilty verdict to be put into question.”

According to the court, the state constitution offers heightened protection of due process rights against unjust and arbitrary government action, applied through the doctrine of “fundamental fairness” in article I, paragraph 1. The doctrine serves as “an augmentation of existing constitutional protections or as an independent source of protection against state action.”