Justice Patterson continued in relevant part: The panel reversed D.M.’s delinquency adjudication, based on its resolution of the question it had raised sua sponte. Id. at 426-28. The panel acknowledged that “sexual conduct,” which would impair or debauch the morals of the child, was undefined in N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(1). Id. at 426. It concluded, however, that the Legislature sought to limit the endangering statute, as applied to juveniles, to cases in which the juvenile’s conduct also would give rise to a charge of either sexual assault or criminal sexual contact by force or coercion. Id. at 424-25, 428. Noting that coercion was not at issue, id. at 424-25, and citing the sexual penetration element of N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a), and the age disparity element of N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(b), the panel held that “the Legislature did not intend sexual behavior between children close in age not involving penetration, which it specifically exempted from the criminal statutes, to nonetheless be included within the crime of child endangerment,” id. at 427.
The Court granted the State’s petition for certification. 231 N.J. 553 (2017). Although the Legislature may decide that N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(1) should not apply in juvenile proceedings based on conduct such as that at issue here, nothing in the current text of that statute precludes the adjudication in this case. The Court declines to rewrite the statute’s plain language in this appeal. However, the Family Part court’s adjudication must be reversed because the court’s disavowal, at the disposition hearing, of critical aspects of its previously-stated factual findings undermined its determination as to both offenses. In this extraordinary setting, it is unclear whether the State met its burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that D.M. violated N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(1). Accordingly, the Court affirms on other grounds the panel’s judgment.
Here, the juvenile-defendant is benefitting from the extraordinary combination of errors made by the trial judge. Many juveniles in similar circumstances end up serving time in a juvenile detention facility and being forced to register as sex offenders. Here, he ends up with outright acquittals despite the trial judge’s recognition that a first-degree aggravated sexual assault was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.