The New Jersey Supreme Court continued in relevant part: The Family Part judge’s credibility assessment and core factual findings — that D.M. “exposed his penis to Z.Y., sought Z.Y. to touch his penis with his mouth, and had his penis physically touch Z.Y.’s buttocks,” but that the State fell short of proving oral or anal penetration — fully supported the judge’s determination on the two offenses considered. Had the court not deviated from its written decision in its later comments, there would be no basis to overturn that determination in this appeal. The court’s statement at the disposition hearing, however, directly contravened the findings set forth in its adjudication.
The juvenile’s personal characteristics are an important factor at the disposition stage, but they do not warrant a “downgrade” of his charges at the adjudication stage, or any other finding inconsistent with the proofs. The court sitting as factfinder in a juvenile adjudication must find the facts that the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt; it has no authority to nullify its findings in order to achieve a more lenient disposition, or for any other purpose.
In this matter, the court disclosed at the disposition that, although the State proved N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a)(1)’s sexual-penetration element, the court discounted that proof and adjudicated the juvenile delinquent on the lesser-related offense. That disclosure undermines confidence in both determinations. In its wake, it is simply unclear what facts the court actually found and what facts it did not find. Accordingly, D.M.’s adjudication must be reversed. The judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed on other grounds.
Justice Albin, concurring, agrees that D.M.’s juvenile adjudication for endangering must be reversed and that N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(1) is in need of legislative review but expresses the view that the child endangerment statute was never intended to criminalize consensual sexual experimentation between close-in-age juveniles that does not violate the sexual offense statutes, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2 and -3. Without such limitations, Justice Albin observes, the endangering statute is vulnerable to a future as-applied constitutional challenge.
It is not clear why the case was not remanded to the trial court for an explanation of what facts were actually found, as opposed to affirming the dismissal of the charges. One reason might be that the trial court simply usurped its duties and could not possibly provide a logical explanation.