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State in Interest of B.C.L.

Decided: March 27, 1980.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY IN THE INTEREST OF B.C.L.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Sullivan, Pashman, Clifford, Schreiber and Pollock. For reversal -- Justice Handler. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pashman, J. Handler, J., dissenting.

Pashman

This case presents our first opportunity to consider public disclosure of information regarding an adjudicated juvenile offender. In 1977, the Legislature enacted N.J.S.A. 2A:4-65(c), L. 1977, c. 255, which entrusted juvenile courts with authority to release the names, offenses and dispositions of youths 14 years of age or older who are adjudged delinquent for having committed certain serious offenses. The statutory standards for withholding such information are "good cause" and the furtherance of "the best interests of the juvenile and the public." Id. In reviewing the decision of a juvenile court permitting disclosure, we are here called upon to interpret the new legislation, examine specific criteria for justifying confidentiality, and provide appropriate procedural guidelines for the release of such information.

I

In October 1977 B.C.L., then 16 years old, and three other juveniles attempted to extort $10,000 from the owner of an

Atlantic City motel. After one of B.C.L.'s companions set a fire in a trash chute at the motel, the juveniles sent the owner a written demand for money. In the note they threatened to burn down the building if they did not receive the $10,000. The motel owner contacted the police, who placed a tap on the owner's telephone while he was awaiting instructions for payment. The next day the police traced to B.C.L.'s home three telephone calls directing where to leave the money. A briefcase stuffed with papers was dropped at the designated spot, but surveillance of the area proved fruitless.

The following day, the motel owner received new telephone instructions giving him "another chance" to make payment. A second package containing both real and bogus money was left at a different location. The police apprehended a juvenile who attempted to pick up the package. Further police investigation led to the arrests of B.C.L. and two other juveniles.

After the other juveniles were adjudicated delinquent, each of them moved under N.J.S.A. 2A:4-65(c) to have their identities kept confidential. The motions were denied, and the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office released their names to local news media.

On January 12, 1978, following a plea of guilty, B.C.L. was found delinquent on charges of attempted extortion, arson and conspiracy. On February 16 the court ordered him committed to the Youth Reception and Correction Facility at Yardville for an indeterminate term. The court suspended this sentence and placed B.C.L. on probation until his 18th birthday.

At the time of disposition, counsel for B.C.L. moved under N.J.S.A. 2A:4-65(c) to have information concerning him withheld from the public. At a hearing on March 23, 1978, counsel presented the testimony of three experts on the psychological problems of juveniles. Jeffrey Roberts, the Director of the Atlantic County Youth Services Bureau, testified that he had been counseling B.C.L. weekly since December 1977. At that

time, according to Roberts, the juvenile was suffering from feelings of insecurity and inferiority and had a limited capacity to handle peer relationships. Roberts testified that with counseling B.C.L. had made progress in overcoming his problems. In the expert's opinion, however, public release of the youth's name would severely inhibit his emotional growth and maturation.

Joel R. Miller, a clinical psychologist, described B.C.L. as an adolescent with many problems. He characterized the juvenile as a very shy person exhibiting a low self-esteem, tension, depression and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Miller believed the juvenile was upset because he was short and lacked the mental resources to combat any stigma or bear its pain. The witness stated that B.C.L. was currently making progress in school and with his social relationships, but that any unfavorable attention resulting from the publication of his name would traumatically reverse this development.

Finally, Dr. Frederick Erskine, a psychiatrist, testified that he did not find B.C.L. to be "criminal-minded" in any way. Impressed by the juvenile's frankness and honesty, Dr. Erskine felt that B.C.L. demonstrated appropriate remorse and contrition. He described the youth as emotionally immature, having feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. Dr. Erskine agreed with the other witnesses that the release of the juvenile's identity and the circumstances of his offenses would be detrimental to his rehabilitation.

Although the State presented no rebuttal testimony, the court denied the juvenile's application. It found that B.C.L. had not demonstrated "good cause" for withholding dissemination under the statute. N.J.S.A. 2A:4-65(c). The court was not persuaded by the anticipated impact of publication on B.C.L.'s rehabilitation, even though the juvenile's name would receive particular attention because of his father's local political prominence. The court concluded that the public's interest in the disposition of serious juvenile offenders outweighed the juvenile's interest in

confidentiality. B.C.L.'s counsel sought and received an order staying publication pending appeal.

Concluding that the juvenile court had properly considered the interests of both the public and the juvenile, the Appellate Division affirmed. In striking a balance of policies in favor of disclosure, the court emphasized that the "best interest of the public" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 2A:4-65(c) "comprehends not only the public's right to know the facts but also the salutary effect of publicity in deterrence of the affected juvenile and others." The court also held that in determining whether to release a juvenile's identity, the prominence or status of his family should not be relevant. The Appellate Division continued the stay on release of the information pending application to this Court.

We granted the juvenile's petition for certification. 81 N.J. 273 (1979). We now affirm.

II

This State has historically followed a policy of maintaining the confidentiality of juvenile court proceedings and records. See generally, State v. Allen, 70 N.J. 474, 479-481 (1976). This policy was first expressed statutorily in 1929 by the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Law, L. 1929, c. 157. Section 27 of that act provided in relevant part:

The Court shall maintain complete records of all petitions and hearings in cases brought before it. Such records shall be withheld from indiscriminate public inspection but shall be open to inspection by the parent or other authorized representative of the person concerned and, in the discretion of the court, by other persons having a legitimate interest.

Although section 27 was deleted in a 1951 statutory revision, L. 1951, c. 344, in 1948 this Court had incorporated the policy on confidentiality into Rule 6:2-7(b) (1948). The rule governed procedure in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts and read in part:

(b) Social records shall consist of reports of social investigations, probation treatment or supervision, psychological or psychiatric examinations, and other reports concerning family life or compositions, school or occupational history, physical condition, foster home placement, and delinquent behavior of children. Such records shall be strictly safeguarded from indiscriminate public inspection. [emphasis supplied]

The latest expression of the policy came in 1973, when N.J.S.A. 2A:4-65(a) was enacted. It provided that juvenile records could be disclosed only to certain specified parties:

(1) Any court or probation department;

(2) The Attorney General or county prosecutor;

(3) The parents or guardian and to the attorney of the juvenile;

(4) The Division of Youth and Family Services, if providing care or custody of the juvenile;

(5) Any institution to which the juvenile is currently committed; and

(6) Any person or agency interested in a case or in the work of the agency keeping the records, by order of the court for good cause shown. [ L. 1973, c. 306, ยง 24]

In State v. Allen, supra, we held that "good cause" existed under N.J.S.A. 2A:4-65(a)(6) to allow the prosecutor to examine the juvenile records of a defendant's crucial alibi witness. The prosecutor was also permitted to use them, if necessary, as the basis to apply for a psychiatric examination of the witness. The analysis which the Court adopted in Allen reflects an attempt to reconcile the conflicting interests of the juvenile and the public. Justice Schreiber articulated the Court's views:

Both the Legislature and the Supreme Court have through the years evinced in their respective statutes and rules a policy of preventing the use of evidence adduced in a juvenile's proceeding in any other court and of limiting the availability to others of a juvenile's records, including psychological or psychiatric examinations. However, the statutes and rules have always ...


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