When a court does not find facts legally sufficient to adjudicate the accused delinquent, that is the end of the matter with respect to that charge. We cannot, as the State here urges, change the original adjudication based on comments the court made while imposing a disposition. We are not fact-finders.
The judge articulated the insufficiency of the evidence as to penetration. Whether he was motivated to make this finding in part by mercy is not legally relevant. Double jeopardy prevents the State’s appeal of a not-delinquent finding in a juvenile trial.
We need not reach the issue of whether the Legislature intended a juvenile to be found delinquent for endangering the welfare of another child under any circumstances. Juveniles are subject to the child endangerment statute, in particular with respect to the prohibition against distribution of child pornography.
Neither penetration nor coercion was found by the trial judge. The Legislature expressly stated its intent not to criminalize sexual contact between children less than four years apart in age absent either penetration or coercion. We must honor that Legislative expression.
To the extent that the child endangerment statute might nonetheless be thought to include behavior of the nature found by the judge in this case, ambiguity in the construction of the statute must be resolved in favor of the juvenile both because the specific statute trumps the general statute and because ambiguous criminal statutes must be interpreted favorably to the accused. The trial Court’s adjudication of delinquency for third degree endangering the welfare of a child is reversed.
The recitation of the facts at the trial court level seem to indicate that the judge issued a verdict that subjected the juvenile to probation, but not having to register as a sex offender. It would be interesting to know how the trial judge would rule in hindsight, after the probationary sentence was reversed and the juvenile was completely exonerated. This seems like a case that the prosecution will appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court.