NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE
APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
This opinion shall not "constitute precedent or be binding upon any court." Although it is posted on the
internet, this opinion is binding only on the parties in the case and its use in other cases is limited. R. 1:36-3.
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
DOCKET NO. A-3518-16T1
STATE OF NEW JERSEY,
EDGARDO E. CUEVAS, a/k/a
WILLIAM GRACIA, JOSE
MALDONADO, JOSE RIVERA,
and WILLIAM GARCIA,
Submitted October 31, 2018 – Decided December 12, 2018
Before Judges Koblitz and Currier.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law
Division, Passaic County, Indictment No.15-09-0751.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for
appellant (Al Glimis, Designated Counsel, of counsel
and on the brief).
Camelia M. Valdes, Passaic County Prosecutor,
attorney for respondent (Ali Y. Ozbek, Assistant
Prosecutor, of counsel and on the brief).
Defendant Edgardo E. Cuevas appeals from his convictions for second-
degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1(a)(1); third-degree aggravated assault,
N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(7); and fourth-degree criminal mischief, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-
3(a), after pleading guilty without a plea agreement on the first day of jury
selection. We reverse because defendant was denied effective assistance of
counsel, causing his original attempt to plead guilty with a plea agreement to be
rejected. We reverse and remand to the judge. A new attorney shall be
appointed to represent defendant. If defendant chooses to plead guilty, his
maximum exposure shall be eight years, subject to the No Early Release Act
(NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, as previously offered by the State.
On April 21, 2015, at approximately 4:00 p.m., defendant entered Tony's
Jewelers in Clifton, New Jersey and stole gold chains. A fight between
defendant and the store owner ensued where defendant punched the owner
several times and jumped onto a glass countertop, breaking it. Defendant left
the store with at least two stolen necklaces, which were later found on his person
with hypodermic needles.
I. The November 10, 2015 Guilty Plea Attempt
A private attorney appointed by the Office of the Public Defender to
represent defendant (pool attorney) appeared on behalf of defendant. 1
Defendant came before the judge to plead guilty to second-degree robbery. The
remaining counts in the indictment were to be dismissed by the State. The State
had agreed to a maximum term of eight years, subject to the NERA eighty-five
percent parole disqualifier. During a sidebar discussion, however, defense
counsel informed the judge that defendant refused to sign the guilty plea forms.
When the judge asked defendant if he rejected the plea offer, defendant
THE DEFENDANT: No, I didn't reject the offer.
All I said to my lawyer, I talked to my lawyer, but every
time I talk to him it's a big deal. And when I came
Friday and I talked to him, and I say can I talk to the
Judge because I would like to change my lawyer,
because I feel like he not giving me a fair one, because
every time we go to the court -- I know I commit a
The Public Defender shall "[m]aintain one or more trial pools of lawyers who
shall be available to serve as counsel on a case basis as needed"; and "[e]ngage
counsel from said trial pools on a case basis as may be necessary for the proper
performance of the duties of the office and compensate them for their services
. . . ." N.J.S.A. 2A:158A-7(c) to (d). It must "divide the case workload of the
office between the professional staff and the trial pool or pools." N.J.S.A.
Throughout this opinion, we reproduce the transcript precisely as written,
without modification, except where indicated.
crime. I did something that I was not supposed to do.
I admit that. I'm not saying I'm innocent.
THE COURT: Okay.
THE DEFENDANT: But I ask him, can you help me
get my lawyer, because the crime I commit is not that
serious to get 8 years 85. But I'm not he[re] telling
people to do what they've got to do. But they got to do
their job. Every time --
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Judge, you know what?
THE DEFENDANT: Every time that I talk to him--
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Mr. Cuevas --
THE DEFENDANT: -- it's like I don't get nothing.
Defense counsel stopped defendant and detailed on the record his efforts:
I visited this man multiple times in the jail. In fact, first
blush he said that he was acting in self defense. I was
able to retrieve copies of the video, four different
angles inside the jewelry store, and each time it looks
like my client is trying to be a customer, and when the
-- the owner turns his back to open a case behind the
counter, my client is seen lunging across the countertop
reaching and grabbing a handful of what looks like
some necklaces, at which point the store owner reaches
over, sees him and hits his arm down, and then a fight
ensues. Trays get knocked over, et cetera.
I explained to my client all the State has to do is roll
that video tape and by using force in a theft, perpetrated
upon this owner of the store, it qualifies for a second-
degree robbery. And I've gone over this with my client
multiple times and he has a prior record.
Now, this is the first time I'm hearing that he wants a
new lawyer. If he wants a new lawyer --
The following exchange then took place between defendant and defense counsel:
THE DEFENDANT: I told you that Friday.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Well, then you never went
THE DEFENDANT: And you came and told me, no --
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Sir, I'm --
THE DEFENDANT: -- you're going to go to trial.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: -- speaking now. I'm
speaking and you hold your tongue.
THE DEFENDANT: I'm not your son --
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: You're not my son, you're my
client. And if you want a new lawyer --
THE DEFENDANT: That is clearly --
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: If you want a new lawyer, go
Defense counsel then informed the judge that while filling out the plea forms,
defendant accepted his guilt; however, defendant would not agree on the form
that he was satisfied with defense counsel's work.
Defense counsel expressed on the record his frustrations in dealing with
Lastly he, and I told him, when I had spoken to him
numerous times about this case, he doesn't understand
why he can't get a 5 with 85. And I've explained to him,
I've asked numerous times to the prosecutor. And
whether the Court would consider that. And I told him
again today, that notwithstanding a good deal of the 8
with 85, I would still ask for the 5 or 6 or lower at
sentencing. But he just doesn't, you know, quite
honestly, he doesn't listen. He thinks he can dictate and
tell the prosecutor what he wants and I've been trying
to tell him that's not the way it works. I've been
assigned to him. If he doesn't like my work, and I've
got to tell you anybody that has been assigned to me,
and this Court knows, from my experience and is signed
in the jail, they love having me because I fight hard for
This client doesn't seem to get it. He likes to cast
aspersions on everybody else, except what he did. I am
limiting his exposure. If he goes to trial and loses on
this case, he's guaranteed at least a 20 with an 85
percent which makes 16 years in jail, for what he
considers nothing as terrible as trying to take jewelry
from a store owner, a hardworking man who has a right
to make a living.
So, he just doesn't fathom that he broke the laws of the
State of New Jersey. Now, I'm willing to put this Plea
Form through, but the way his actions are, if he wants
another attorney, he doesn't need to get representation
by the public defender. He has every right to hire one,
but he better do it immediately, because I know he
hasn't tried, he claims he has an attorney in mind, but
no one will take him. And you know what will happen?
They'll call me, and they'll ask me about them and I'll
tell them quite honesty, he's a very difficult man to deal
with because he doesn't see the forest from the trees.
But if I'm still his lawyer and I have to try his case, I
will do the best I can, but I see him getting convicted.
Now, this is a good plea offer, but if he says he's not
satisfied with my services then, and the Public
Defender will not reassign it, if you want to serve, try
this case on your own, what they call pro se, I will sit
next to you throughout the whole trial, and you do your
own defense. That's your option.
The judge explained to defendant that he had the right to a private attorney, the
Public Defender's Office would not assign a new pool attorney, and defense
attorneys have no control over the plea agreements offered by the State.
Acknowledging that defendant and defense counsel "may not get along, [and]
may have some difficulty understanding each other . . . because [they] both have
strong personalities," the judge encouraged defendant to continue working with
The judge told defendant:
So, at this point, you're stuck with whether or not you
want to take the 8 or not. Now, if you are not satisfied
with your lawyer, I cannot take your plea bargain, sir.
I know everything that I have told you, I know [defense
counsel] has told you before.
So, here we are. The only other thing I can do is
schedule you for trial, Mr. Cuevas, which you are
entitled to. So, now you have to tell me, which one do
you want, sir? Understanding that you are not going to
get a new public defender.
Defendant replied, "I never say no to the plea. Or he asks me a question, then I
said no. That's what I told him." The judge indicated that she understood but
reiterated that she could not accept his guilty plea if he was not satisfied with
counsel and would have no choice but to set a trial date. Defendant responded,
"Yeah, I understand. But I never say nothing due to the plea." Defense counsel
added, "When you told me you're not satisfied with the work I've done for you,
then I can't in good conscience put this plea through." Defense counsel
Because I don't know if you understand this, but I did
go to school for this, and my license is on the line. So,
a person like you says you don't want, you don't like the
work I did but I put a plea through, I could be subjected
to misconduct charges. I am not going to do that for
you. You wanted the plea, we're filling out the forms,
but you think you're so cute because, oh, I'm not
completely happy with your work here, because you're
not getting what you want. So, therefore, you just
boxed yourself into a trial because you think you're
trying to be cute.
You have 14 prior convictions, five felonies. Five,
including one armed robbery. So, you know what the
law is and you know how it happens and what goes on.
So, once you've made that known, now you can change
your mind and say if you're satisfied, but I don't know
if the Court will accept your plea today, from what's
going on, because you seem to be wanting to always
manipulate the system for yourself. You had ample
opportunity to get a new lawyer and you've done
nothing to do so. I don't see any family here with you,
someone you communicate with to get a lawyer, and
quite frankly, I don't believe any lawyer would -- you
would be able to hire a lawyer, because if you came to
me privately, you wouldn't have enough money to pay
me. And that's the bottom line.
So, right now the pretrial memo was filled out last
week, which you refused to sign. I handed it to the
Court, I signed it and the prosecutor signed it. Now all
the Judge has left to do is put this into the trial bank and
give us a trial date. And that's your doing.
The judge informed defendant that she was not going to accept his guilty
plea. The following exchange then occurred:
THE DEFENDANT: But I was going to take the plea,
THE COURT: No, no, no, Mr. Cuevas. I don't think
you understand. You understand that this is not
something that you are going to be forced into doing.
THE DEFENDANT: No, no. I was not forced.
The judge then spoke to defendant:
(In Spanish) I'm speaking. I am telling you I cannot
force you to take a plea. I can't take your plea after
you're telling me that you're dissatisfied with your
lawyer. You understand? I can't do it. Because when
we're done, what you're going to turn around and do is
file an appeal and say that you're not happy with the
sentence and that the judge overlooked the fact that you
had indicated that you were unhappy with your plea.
So, in fact, I don't want to do this case twice, Mr.
Cuevas. One time. So, the law obligates me to give
you a trial date, okay?
The judge then informed defendant that if convicted at trial, he would face a
lengthy prison term.
Defendant started speaking in Spanish and the judge and defense counsel
responded as follows:
THE COURT: Okay, but you need it in English.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: You have to speak English.
THE DEFENDANT: When he asked me that --
THE COURT: You need to speak to me in English, or
you need an interpreter.
Defendant then stated, in English, "When he asked me if I was unsatisfied, when
I was in a table I say that. But I would never say that when I took the plea
. . . ." The judge, however, agreed with defense counsel that "his [law] license
[was] on the line" and reiterated her hesitancy to accept a guilty plea when
defendant indicated that he was not satisfied with defense counsel. The judge
tried to clarify defendant's reason for being dissatisfied:
THE COURT: Mr. Cuevas, listen, I need to understand,
when you said that you're dissatisfied, are you
dissatisfied because you didn't get the plea bargain you
wanted? Is that why you're --
THE DEFENDANT: Nah.
THE COURT: Are you dissatisfied with his
representation of you?
THE DEFENDANT: No, not really. It was a lot of
things is did I ask and something I don't understand, but
I never mean it to tell him something like that, to go to
court and say in court, when he asked me that.
THE COURT: But he has an obligation to do that, Mr.
Cuevas. Do you understand?
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Yes.
THE DEFENDANT: I understand that.
Defense counsel added:
So, quite frankly, Mr. Cuevas, I think you opened your
mouth and really hurt yourself by saying that you're not
satisfied with my work. My suggestions to you would
be to get another lawyer, hire one, if that's the case.
Because the public defender is going to keep me with
you. Or you can try this case on your own and I will sit
next to you as the law allows. But then you're on your
own, asking your own questions and answers. So, it's
your call. The judge is ready to give us a trial -- a trial
The judge asked defendant what he wanted to do, and defendant responded:
"Take the plea." The judge then asked to see counsel at sidebar, stated she was
unsure whether it would be appropriate to accept defendant's guilty plea, and
asked counsel if the matter should be adjourned to allow defendant time to "think
about it." The State stated, "We're going back to . . . nine [years] after today,
Judge. He's been jerking us around . . . for lack of a better term, for a number
of days." Back on the record, the following exchange took place:
THE COURT: Mr. Cuevas, you know what? I just
want to clarify something with you. I'm very concerned
about taking this plea today. If you have some sort of
equivocation as to why, which was the discussion that
we had earlier, why you were unhappy with the services
given to you by [defense counsel]. I need some
clarification from you, because if it has anything to do,
other than the fact that you didn't like the number that
you got, then I don't want to take this plea from you.
Do you understand? Because I don't want it to be
forced. I don't want there to be any indication that you
were unhappy with his services, because all that is
going to mean is that there is going to be a motion after
you take a plea to withdraw, or a PCR  after you're
convicted or an appeal. And we're going to be right
back here again.
So, I would prefer that you clarify for me what you
meant by that. Do you understand my question?
THE DEFENDANT: I understand your question.
THE COURT: Okay.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: So, you are unhappy with the
number that's being offered; is that what it is, Mr.
Petition for post-conviction relief.
THE DEFENDANT: One minute you had speak, I
never could understand a lot of the things. That was the
Defense counsel then proceeded to clarify the confusion surrounding
defendant's dissatisfaction by establishing on the record—and defendant
agreeing—that (1) defendant received all of the discovery and discussed it with
defense counsel "multiple times"; (2) defense counsel negotiated with the State
and was able to reduce the plea offer from nine to eight years; (3) at defendant's
request, defense counsel asked the State for five years, but the State said
"absolutely not"; (4) defense counsel explained to defendant that if found guilty
after trial, defendant would face an extended term of twenty years in prison with
an eighty-five percent parole disqualifier; (5) "based upon all of the work [he
had] done" for defendant, defense counsel recommended that defendant plead
guilty; (6) at sentencing, defense counsel would ask the judge for a sentence of
less than eight years, but the ultimate sentence is within the judge's discretion;
and (7) given defendant's criminal history, defense counsel found it unlikely that
the judge would sentence defendant to less than eight years. Defense counsel
explicitly asked defendant about his satisfaction:
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: So, therefore, you're
unhappy, not with the proofs in understanding what's
going on here, because you know what happened,
you're unhappy because you didn't get what you felt
was a good plea offer, other than what you're pleading
guilty to today; is that correct?
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: And you understand that
today was the last day to take the eight, otherwise it's
off the table and you have to go to trial, which I
suggested to you was not a viable option; do you
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: So, the only dissatisfaction
you have with my services is that you could not – I
could not get you lower than an eight-year term of
imprisonment; is that correct?
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: You've gone over all the
proofs with me, you understood same, and yet, have no
questions about what the State will prove to show that
you're guilty of the charge; do you understand that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: You would prefer having a
lower number, so would I, but it's not in the cards right
now. So, therefore, you know that you're voluntarily
accepting this plea to plea to eight years with 85
percent; is that correct?
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Has anybody forced you or
threatened you to want to enter into this plea?
THE DEFENDANT: No.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: You're doing so of your own
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: And you're doing so, you
know that your exposure is so great that you want to
limit your exposure in jail; is that correct?
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: So, therefore, are you now
satisfied with the explanations I've given you towards
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Are you satisfied this is the
right thing for you to do concerning your livelihood; is
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: And are you satisfied now
with the services I've rendered to you?
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah.
Defense counsel believed this clarified the confusion, however, the judge
disagreed. She explained:
I don't feel comfortable taking his plea. I just asked
him a few minutes ago . . . if it had anything to do with
the number, and he said, no, we just didn't understand
each other. I still think that this is, you know, ripe for
appeal, and I'm concerned about taking his plea.
The State, while reiterating that an eight-year plea offer was "coming off the
table today," suggested that the pretrial conference be adjourned to a later date
since defendant "[would not] sign the pretrial forms . . . ."
The judge held another sidebar discussion out of defendant's presence and
again expressed that she was uncomfortable accepting defendant's guilty plea.
While discussing whether adjourning the matter would be worthwhile, the judge
asked the State to leave eight years "on the table." The State responded: "Judge,
I'm not leaving the eight on the table. The eight is coming off the table today."
Contrary to his client's expressed wishes, defense counsel advised the
judge at sidebar: "Just give us a trial date. . . . Just reject this, give us a trial
date, that's all." The judge replied, "All right."
Back in open court, the judge explained to defendant:
Mr. Cuevas, I understand what you just -- the
questioning that you just went through with your
attorney, and your desire to take the plea. My problem
is, is that you are equivocating about why you're not
happy with your lawyer, and for that, it's completely
understandable, it's your choice. You're telling --
you're telling the Court how you feel, but based on that,
I'm not satisfied that I can take this plea at this time
based on that.
So, I'm concerned about the fact that you are
equivocating. And I don't want to force you into doing
anything. I don't think it's appropriate, and based on
that I'm just going to go ahead and give you a trial date,
Mr. Cuevas, all right?
Defendant did not appear to understand why the judge was giving him a trial
date, saying: "So that mean that I can't take my plea?"
Defense counsel repeatedly told defendant on the record that he now had
to go to trial, adding:
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: So, now you have to go to
trial. And if you're going to hire another attorney, the
attorney is bound by the trial.
THE DEFENDANT: I wanted to take the plea.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: But the Judge is not
accepting it. The Judge has a right not to accept a plea,
and it's basically because of what you said.
THE DEFENDANT: I didn't know that. I ask you that
because I understand a few things. It was not because
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: No, you -- we tried to clear it
up for you and the Judge is not satisfied.
The judge asked defendant if he was still refusing to sign his pretrial
memorandum because she wanted him to sign and understand the contents of
the document. Defendant remained confused:
THE COURT: Mr. Cuevas, are you still refusing to
sign the document? Or are you going to sign it?
THE DEFENDANT: (Speaking in Spanish) plea.
THE COURT: You can't take the plea. Let me just
clarify for the record, and although I have translators in
the room, he's indicating --
THE DEFENDANT: (Speaking Spanish).
THE COURT: One second, sir. One second.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Speak English.
THE COURT: He said to me in Spanish "why can I not
take my plea?" And then he said, "I didn't understand
that. I didn't know that." So, now I'm going to respond
to you, Mr. Cuevas.
I explained to you that once you indicate that you are
not satisfied with your lawyer, it's a very important part
of the plea. That's why it's a question inside your Plea
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah, but I didn't mean it like
that, Your Honor. I didn't mean it like that.
THE COURT: But I just gave you a second op --
THE DEFENDANT: It was because I couldn't
understand a few things.
THE COURT: Mr. Cuevas, I gave you a second
opportunity to clarify that. I asked you, is it that you
are unhappy with him based on the number that you got,
and you said no. It's that we talked about things and we
don't understand each other about a lot of things; is that
not what you said?
THE DEFENDANT: (Speaking in Spanish). And I
couldn't understand too much.
THE COURT: Do you want to do me a favor and
translate for him, please? Because you keep switching
back and forth. You said -- repeat yourself again for
me, Mr. Cuevas.
THE DEFENDANT: (Speaking in Spanish).
Defendant stated, "When I'm asked the question in English, I understand but I
don't understand very well." An interpreter was finally sworn in to translate for
defendant. The judge then questioned defendant about his need for an
THE COURT: All right, Mr. Cuevas, you have never
asked for a Spanish interpreter, right?
THE DEFENDANT: No.
THE COURT: Okay. But today you're telling me that
you didn't understand what you were talking about with
THE DEFENDANT: Because there are things I
understand well, but there are some things I do not
Defendant tried to clarify that he wanted to plead guilty and was satisfied with
defense counsel's work: "So, you can't take my -- you can't take the plea that I
wanted to take because I don't want to go to trial. When I said that I wasn't
satisfied, I didn't understand a couple of things. It wasn't because of the job that
he was doing."
The judge then decided to adjourn the matter "for a couple of weeks" to
allow defendant and defense counsel to review the pretrial memorandum with
an interpreter present to ensure defendant "underst[ood] everything clearly."
Defendant again stated, "When I said I wasn't satisfied, I wasn't referring to the
job that he was doing, rather just some words that he was using that I didn't
understand." The judge reiterated to defendant that the eight-year plea offer was
"off the table," and again, defendant indicated he often had difficulty
understanding defense counsel. Defendant repeated, "I'll do it. I'll repeat it.
The plea is being taken away because of misunderstanding that I had?" Defense
counsel also tried to clarify any confusion:
Judge, in all my times dealing with Mr. Cuevas, the first
thing I asked was do you need an interpreter. He said
no. I visited him multiple times in the jail with
availability to have an interpreter through a phone
bank, he never asked me nor required me to do so. I
don't speak Spanish, and he clearly understood my
questions and answers based upon my conversations
and notes. So, maybe there was some
misunderstanding as to the question, I don't know. But
I've been trying very hard to negotiate the numbers
down, and as the Court is aware so is the prosecutor.
So, I think it more was aligned with the numbers, as
opposed to the proofs and my explanation of same to
So, I think under that, I think the Court can take this
plea, because it's purely the numbers that he was quite
annoyed at, not the -- not the legal review of the file.
The State argued that "[c]learly, there is no knowing and voluntarily intelligent
plea that can come from this defendant today, because he does not understand
things that are going on." The State then recommended that a pretrial conference
be adjourned and an interpreter be ordered for that hearing. The judge adjourned
the matter until December 7, 2015.
II. The December 7, 2015 Pretrial Conference
At the pretrial conference, with the assistance of an interpreter, the judge
reviewed defendant's sentence exposure. Defendant tried to understand why the
plea offer was withdrawn:
THE DEFENDANT: So, what happened last time is
when I was here, I was about to take the plea and then
he asked me something and then when I answered, then
the plea offer was taken away, I want to know why.
THE COURT: Right. Because remember when we
talked about it back then that it's -- the Court can't take
a plea when you're indicating that you're dissatisfied
with your representation by your attorney. You
understand? Remember we talked about that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah, I understand. Well, then if
you're taking the plea away, why are you taking me to
trial? I never asked to be taken to trial.
THE COURT: Because that's the only other recourse
that the Court has. I can't just leave you sitting in inside
the jail, right? I can't accept your plea when you
indicate that you're dissatisfied with your lawyer,
because what will happen is, Mr. Cuevas, as soon as
you hit the jail after you take your plea, you have the
right to appeal. The Court is going to have to take back
that plea, because you indicated on the record that you
were dissatisfied with your lawyer. It's an automatic
appealable issue, you understand? So, there is no point
in me taking a plea from you when you're saying that
your rights are being violated. Because you're not
satisfied with your lawyer. You understand what I'm
THE DEFENDANT: (In Spanish).
THE COURT: Okay. So, my choice as the Court is to
do two things: If I can't take your plea because it's not
appropriate and it's not legal, the only other thing I can
do is schedule the case for trial.
I know you think that the Court is somehow punishing
you, but I'm not. I don't have a choice.
THE DEFENDANT: But how can you say that if I was
about to take the plea that was given to me?
THE COURT: You can't take a plea when you're saying
you're dissatisfied with your lawyer.
THE DEFENDANT: I explained to you that the reason
that was -- there were some words -- I do understand
English but there were some words that I did not, and
that is why I said what I said.
THE COURT: I absolutely remember that, Mr. Cuevas.
And we were speaking English the whole time and then
you told me you didn't understand some words and with
that you went into -- and we went through it with the
interpreter, and you know what? You told me the same
exact thing, that you were still dissatisfied. You told
me in English and you told me the same thing in
Spanish. Do you remember that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah.
THE COURT: Okay, so, legally --
THE DEFENDANT: I understand what you're saying.
THE COURT: Momento. Momento. [using Spanish]
One second. Legally I cannot accept your plea, sir. I
know you are looking at me confused and you think that
the Court is somehow punishing you. I am not. I am
trying to protect your rights. Because you have advised
me that you are unhappy with your lawyer.
THE DEFENDANT: I understand, but what I don't
understand is why am I being sent to trial? Because at
trial they might give me a lot more time than was on the
III. The September 13, 2016 Plea
On September 13, 2016 the parties started selecting a jury. Defendant,
with the assistance of an interpreter, after signing the guilty plea forms, pled
guilty to all charges in the indictment, without any agreement from the State.
He was represented by the same pool attorney who had represented him
At sentencing, defense counsel opposed the State's motion for an extended
prison term. Defense counsel also emphasized the dramatic difference between
the maximum term the State initially offered defendant and the extended term
the State was seeking. The State responded that previous negotiations were not
relevant to whether the judge should grant the discretionary extended-term
The judge went through the statutory factors, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-3, for an
extended-term sentence and, finding that defendant's prior robbery, aggravated
assault and burglary convictions qualified him, sentenced defendant as a
Defense counsel then spoke about sentencing:
This was a non-negotiated plea. The Court has just
gone over my client's prior history and, quite frankly,
this Court knows me too well. I cannot even attempt to
ask for a mitigating factor. None whatsoever. I -- in
all honesty, I wouldn't even burden the Court to try to
make a stretch. I can't. And I know the aggravating
factors are overwhelming.
Defense counsel then asked the court to sentence defendant to ten years in
prison. The court sentenced defendant to an aggregate sentence of fifteen years
in prison, subject to NERA.
Defendant raises the following issues on appeal:
POINT I: THE COURT BELOW ERRED IN
FINDING THAT IT WAS PRECLUDED AS A
MATTER OF LAW FROM ENTERING MR.
CUEVAS' GUILTY PLEA BECAUSE HE TOLD HIS
ATTORNEY, WHEN FILLING OUT THE GUILTY
PLEA FORM, THAT HE WAS NOT SATISFIED
WITH COUNSEL'S REPRESENTATION. THE
COURT ABUSED ITS DISCRETION IN REFUSING
TO ALLOW MR. CUEVAS TO ENTER A GUILTY
POINT II: THE COURT BELOW ABUSED ITS
DISCRETION BY FAILING TO APPOINT A
SPANISH-SPEAKING INTERPRETER TO
TRANSLATE FOR MR. CUEVAS. THE COURT
FAILED TO APPOINT AN INTERPRETER DESPITE
THE FACT THAT MR. CUEVAS WAS
ADDRESSING THE COURT IN SPANISH AND THE
COURT WAS SPEAKING SPANISH TO MR.
CUEVAS. BECAUSE THE COURT REFUSED TO
ALLOW MR. CUEVAS TO ENTER A GUILTY PLEA
BASED ON HIS STATEMENTS WITHOUT AN
INTERPRETER, MR. CUEVAS WAS DENIED HIS
CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS UNDER THE
FEDERAL AND NEW JERSEY CONSTITUTIONS.
POINT III: TRIAL COUNSEL'S CONDUCT AFTER
MR. CUEVAS SAID HE WAS DISSATISFIED WITH
HIS REPRESENTATION CONSTITUTED PER SE
INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL.
TRIAL COUNSEL'S FAILURE TO WITHDRAW AS
MR. CUEVAS' ATTORNEY AND THE COURT'S
FAILURE TO APPOINT AN UNCONFLICTED
ATTORNEY TO REPRESENT DEFENDANT
DEPRIVED HIM OF HIS FEDERAL AND STATE
CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS TO COUNSEL, DUE
PROCESS AND A FAIR TRIAL.
POINT IV: ALTERNATIVELY, THE SENTENCING
COURT IMPROPERLY CONSIDERED
DEFENDANT'S PRIOR RECORD BOTH IN
IMPOSING AN EXTENDED TERM SENTENCE
AND IN DETERMINING THE LENGTH OF THE
SENTENCE; THE COURT'S SENTENCE IS
V. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
We review a defendant's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel under
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984) and State v. Fritz, 105 N.J.
42, 58 (1987) (adopting the Strickland test in New Jersey). Under the Sixth
Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 1, Paragraph 10 of the
New Jersey Constitution, the right to counsel entitles a defendant to the effective
assistance of counsel during criminal proceedings. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 685-
86; Fritz, 105 N.J. at 58. To establish a violation of the right to effective
assistance of counsel, a convicted defendant must satisfy the two-pronged test
articulated in Strickland by showing that (1) counsel's performance was
deficient; and (2) counsel's deficient performance prejudiced the defense.
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687-88; see also Fritz, 105 N.J. at 52-53, 58.
Under the first prong of the Strickland test, in order to show that counsel's
performance was deficient, a defendant must show that counsel's representation
was not objectively reasonable. State v. Pierre, 223 N.J. 560, 578 (2015) (citing
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687-88). A defendant "must allege facts sufficient to
demonstrate counsel's alleged substandard performance." State v. Cummings,
321 N.J. Super. 154, 170 (App. Div. 1999). Once a defendant has done so, an
appellate court will then view the facts asserted in the light most favorable to
the defendant. See State v. Porter, 216 N.J. 343, 353 (2013).
A defendant must also satisfy the second prong of the Strickland test. See
State v. Parker, 212 N.J. 269, 80 (2012). A defendant must "affirmatively prove
prejudice" by showing a "reasonable probability that, but for counsel's
unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different."
Pierre, 223 N.J. at 583 (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 693-4). "A reasonable
probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome."
Strickland, 466 U.S at 694. Even if defense counsel's error is "professionally
unreasonable" a criminal judgment will not be set aside if the error had no effect
on the outcome of the case. State v. Paige, 256 N.J. Super. 362, 377 (App. Div.
1992) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 691-92).
Typically, claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are not brought on
direct appeal "because such claims involve allegations and evidence that lie
outside the trial record." State v. Preciose, 129 N.J. 451, 460-61 (1992). Though
claims of ineffective assistance of counsel "are more appropriately raised in
collateral, post-conviction relief proceedings," we may hear such a claim on
direct appeal when there is "an adequately developed record upon which to
evaluate [a] defendant's ineffective assistance of counsel claim." State v.
Johnson, 365 N.J. Super. 27, 34 (App. Div. 2003).
Here, defendant argues that such an adequately developed record exists
because defense counsel had a conflict of interest. We agree. Defense counsel's
conflict of interest, and his subsequent ineffectiveness, arose at the November
10, 2015 plea hearing when defendant stated he was dissatisfied with counsel's
representation. Defense counsel placed his conflict of interest on the record
when he expressed concern that he could face "ethics charges." Defense counsel
told the judge that defendant was manipulating the system and recommended to
the judge, out of the hearing of his client,4 that defendant should not be allowed
to plead guilty to the favorable plea agreement.
Counsel's representation at the sentencing hearing is another example of
the objectively inferior job he performed on behalf of his client. Counsel
represented to the court that no mitigating factors existed and "the aggravating
factors are overwhelming." The duty of defense counsel is to be a "zealous
advocate" on behalf of his or her client. Brundage v. Estate of Carambio, 195 N.J. 575, 602 (2008). To behave as an auxiliary prosecutor is far below
acceptable standards. Thus, because defense counsel had a conflict of interest
and argued against his own client's expressed interests, the record clearly
supports Strickland's first prong in determining ineffective assistance of
We see no need for bench conferences on the record out of the hearing of the
defendant when no jury is present. See State v. W.A., 184 N.J. 45, 48 (2005)
(holding that a defendant's constitutional right to be present at every stage of his
or her trial includes the right, when requested, to be present at voir dire sidebar
conferences); see also State v. Davenport, 177 N.J. 288, 309 (2003) (holding
that a defendant's exclusion from a sidebar conference does not violate his or
her right to self-representation "so long as the exclusion does not deprive the
defendant of meaningful participation in the content of the sidebars through his
[or her] standby counsel representative"). If the judge here had determined that
"legitimate security concerns" precluded defendant's presence at the three bench
conferences that took place during the November 10, 2015 hearing, such
concerns should have been "detailed clearly on the record." Davenport, 177 N.J.
Defendant was offered a plea agreement with a maximum of eight years
in prison. Instead, he received fifteen years in prison after pleading guilty on
the first day of jury selection; a sentence that appears dangerously close to a
penalty for going to trial. See N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(c)(1) (stating that a guilty plea
or failure to plead guilty "shall not be considered in withholding or imposing a
sentence of imprisonment"). But for counsel's performance, the judge may well
have accepted a plea of guilty with a maximum exposure of eight years. This
satisfies the "different result" likelihood of the second Strickland prong.
VI. Insufficient Use of Interpreter
Complicating the picture was the failure to provide an interpreter to
defendant at the initial hearing. Before a judge begins to speak to a defendant
in Spanish, the proceedings should be stopped until an interpreter is appointed.
"It is a self-evident proposition that a defendant who is unable to speak and
understand English has a right to have his trial proceedings translated so as to
permit him to participate effectively in his own defense." State v. Kounelis, 258 N.J. Super. 420, 427 (App. Div. 1992). A defendant does not waive "the
constitutional right to a defense interpreter . . . by mere acquiescence or
nonverbal conduct . . . ." Id. at 427-28; see also Daoud v. Mohammad, 402 N.J.
Super. 57, 59-60 (App. Div. 2008) (finding that defendant tenant "was deprived
of a full and fair opportunity to be heard as a result of not having had a court -
approved interpreter from the outset").
Finally, the judge did not allow defendant to plead guilty with an eight-
year exposure without an interpreter, but accepted a guilty plea with the same
defense counsel, and an interpreter, to a plea with no sentencing restriction ,
apparently because defendant finally signed the plea forms. Defendant received
an additional seven years in prison because he had poor representation, or
because he did not originally have an interpreter, or perhaps because the
prosecutor and defense counsel thought defendant was "trying to be cute": none
of these reasons is valid.
VII. Rejection of Plea
The judge should not have rejected defendant's original plea of guilty.
This court reviews a trial court's refusal to accept a plea agreement for an abuse
of discretion. State v. Daniels, 276 N.J. Super. 483, 488 (App. Div. 1994). A
trial court abuses its discretion when, for example, it rejects a plea agreement
because it believes a defendant could be found guilty of a greater offense. See
State v. Madan, 366 N.J. Super 98, 110 (App. Div. 2004). A trial court must
exercise "sound discretion" when deciding to reject a plea agreement. Id. at 108
(quoting State v. Brockington, 140 N.J. Super. 422, 427 (App. Div. 1976)).
Where defense counsel turns on his client in order to defend counsel's own
reputation, and the defendant has some language difficulty, the trial court should
ensure that a new lawyer is appointed, an interpreter is utilized, and the
defendant then has the opportunity to accept the plea agreement as formulated.
Although the State has wide discretion in offering a plea agreement, see, e.g.,
State v. Cengiz, 241 N.J. Super. 482, 496 (App. Div. 1990), annoyance with a
defendant who has some difficulty with English and a falling-out with his lawyer
is not a valid reason to withdraw an offer.
Although the judge was clearly trying to safeguard the integrity of the
proceedings, her unwarranted rejection of the guilty plea gave the State the
opportunity to withdraw the proffered plea and subjected defendant to many
additional years in prison. We recognize that the judge was urged by defense
counsel, out of the hearing of his client, to reject the original plea, but counsel's
lack of undivided loyalty to his client was clear and the judge should not have
acceded to this urging.
The only way to ensure defendant does not suffer from his initial lack of
an interpreter as well as ineffective counsel, is to reverse the conviction and
remand the matter so that new defense counsel may be assigned. If defendant
then decides to plead guilty, he must be sentenced within the bounds of the eight-
year post-indictment plea offer.
Reversed and remanded for further proceedings. We do not retain