Once the judge found insufficient evidence of sexual penetration, the question became whether a juvenile who is not guilty of sexual assault due to an insufficient age differential could nonetheless be adjudicated delinquent of child endangerment for that same behavior. In other words, did the Legislature particularly exempt sexual contact between two children close in age from delinquent liability only to criminalize that same conduct under the more general rubric of child endangerment? The State argues that even without the four-year age difference, D.M.’s behavior constitutes “sexual conduct” and thus fits the definition of endangerment. As our Supreme Court has stated, however, when a clear ambiguity exists “a canon of statutory construction directs that a specific statute generally overrides a general statute. Under usual rules of statutory construction, the more specific law must be interpreted as prevailing over the more general one.”
The pertinent part of the child endangerment statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a), states: (1) Any person having a legal duty for the care of a child or who has assumed responsibility for the care of a child who engages in sexual conduct which would impair or debauch the morals of the child is guilty of a crime of the second degree. Any other person who engages in conduct or who causes harm as described in this paragraph to a child is guilty of a crime of the third degree.
“Although the term ‘sexual conduct’ is not defined in the child endangerment statute, clearly included are sexual assaults and sexual contact.” To ascertain Legislative intent, we “read words and phrases in their context and apply their ‘generally accepted meaning. We can also draw inferences based on the statute’s overall structure and composition.”
It seems antithetical to look to the Legislature’s intent in cases where the Legislature’s imprecision in drafting the statute is what caused the ambiguity in the first place. This approach tends to favor the prosecution in most cases, because the Legislature almost always acts to stiffen criminal penalties, as opposed to appearing providing relief where it is due and appearing “soft on crime.”