On May 14, 2019, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Union County case of State in the interest of D.M. The principal issue involved the circumstances under which an endangering the welfare of a child charge could apply to a juvenile defendant.
Justice Patterson wrote for a unanimous Court and held in relevant part as follows: The Court considers whether a juvenile can be adjudicated delinquent for endangering the welfare of a child in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(1) when the juvenile and his alleged victim are fewer than four years apart in age and the Family Part judge makes no findings of sexual penetration, force, or coercion. The Court also considers the impact of the Family Part’s conflicting characterizations, at the adjudication and disposition hearings, of its factual findings regarding the juvenile’s conduct.
According to testimony, Z.Y., eleven, stated that fourteen-year-old D.M. had “made Z.Y. suck his penis” and told Z.Y. to “put D.M.’s penis in his anus.” Z.Y. ultimately described three encounters with D.M. at which the conduct allegedly occurred. The State charged D.M. with delinquency based on conduct which, if committed by an adult, would constitute first-degree aggravated sexual assault contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:142(a)(1). At trial, the State had the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the elements of that statute. One of those elements is an act of “sexual penetration.”
D.M. requested that the judge consider third-degree endangering the welfare of a child as a lesser-related offense. In order to establish a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:244(a)(1), the State had the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that D.M. engaged in “sexual conduct which would impair or debauch the morals of the child.” The State agreed with D.M.’s counsel that there was a rational basis in the evidence for the endangering charge, and consented to the request.
Very few trial court cases result in published appellate opinions. Even fewer cases make it all the way to the Supreme Court. The trial judge would have almost certainly taken greater care to avoid conflicting characterizations at the adjudication and disposition hearings if s/he considered that so many judges and attorneys would be reviewing their findings.