Understanding the NJ Supremes’ Decision in State v. Roberson Burney


Cell tower evidence lawyer

Cell tower evidence is frequently used in criminal cases.

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently issued a pivotal decision in the case of State v. Roberson Burney, a case dealing with complex issues of evidence admissibility and the potential for cumulative error during a trial. The Court ruled that both expert testimony regarding the defendant’s cell phone location based on a “rule of thumb” approximation and a first-time in-court identification of the defendant were inadmissible. The combination of these errors, the Court held, deprived the defendant of a fair trial.



Roberson Burney was accused of a robbery that took place on December 25, 2015. During the trial, the prosecution relied heavily on two pieces of evidence. First, expert testimony from an FBI Special Agent suggested that Burney’s cell phone was near the crime scene based on cell tower analysis. Second, one of the victims, Rosette Martinez, identified Burney as the perpetrator in court for the first time, even though she had previously identified another individual in a photo lineup.

Expert Testimony Issue

The Court highlighted the potential for juror misunderstanding of cell tower analysis. Expert testimony on cell tower location can place a phone in a “general area,” but it is not as precise as GPS data. The Court referred to established case law which holds that expert testimony grounded solely in personal views and unsupported by objective facts must be excluded.

In Burney’s case, the FBI agent’s testimony that the defendant’s cell phone was likely near the crime scene was considered an improper “net opinion,” as it was unsupported by any factual evidence or other data. It was solely based on the agent’s training and experience, which the Court deemed insufficient.

First-Time In-Court Identification Issue

The Court also ruled that the first-time in-court identification of Burney by Martinez was highly suggestive and should not have been admitted. This decision was influenced by another recent New Jersey Supreme Court case, State v. Watson. According to this new precedent, identification procedures must not be suggestive and prosecutors must disclose any information discussed with a witness that relates to an upcoming in-court identification.

In Burney’s case, the Court held that by informing Martinez about the arrest and evidence against Burney before her in-court identification, the detective had influenced her identification in an impermissible manner.

Cumulative Error and Fair Trial

The Court concluded that the cumulative effect of these errors had a serious impact on the jury’s perception and prejudiced the fairness of Burney’s trial. Therefore, his conviction was reversed, and a new trial was ordered.

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Solomon, in a dissenting opinion, argued that despite the errors, there was other competent evidence against Burney, such as DNA evidence and photographs, which could have been sufficient for conviction.


The decision has significant implications for future criminal trials in New Jersey. It underscores the importance of the reliability of evidence and safeguards that need to be in place to ensure a fair trial.


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