Disclosure of Child Abuse Records (Part 4)

by | Dec 6, 2018 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

The New Jersey Supreme court continued: The Appellate Division panel held that N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10b applies only to the Division and to persons and entities authorized by N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10a(b) to receive confidential records from the Division. The Appellate Division’s construction of N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10a and -8.10b does not constitute the only reasonable interpretation of the statutory language. Indeed, the State construes N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10a(a) to generally impose a confidentiality requirement on all persons and entities who receive child abuse records governed by the statute. To the State, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10a(b) should be viewed to merely clarify that when a confidential child abuse record is disclosed as authorized by that subsection, anyone given access to it must treat it as confidential. The State’s construction of the statute is reasonable. That determination, however, does not resolve the statutory construction issue presented by this appeal. Given that the statutory language is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation, and that extrinsic sources do not resolve the parties’ dispute, the Court finds an ambiguity that cannot inure to the benefit of the State. Applying the rule of lenity, the Court adopts the Appellate Division panel’s construction of N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10a and -8.10b, and concurs with the panel that defendant’s conduct is beyond the reach of N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10b. The Court stresses that its holding should not be viewed to minimize the gravity of the acts that led to defendant’s prosecution.

It is in the domain of the Legislature to determine whether an individual who is unauthorized to view records deemed confidential under the statute, but who nonetheless knowingly gains access to such confidential records and disseminates them to others, is subject to the criminal penalties set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10b.  If the Legislature concludes that the State’s position represents the better public policy, it has the power to amend N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10a and -8.10b. The judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed.

Our Legislature routinely passes laws that are ambiguous. This occurs even though the Legislative process is slow and tedious. Still, out of “separation of power” concerns, our courts can not fix the ambiguities, but can only encourage the Legislature to do so.