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In re T.M.

February 06, 2001


The opinion of the court was delivered by: LaVECCHIA, J.

Argued November 8, 2000

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

On April 26, 1995, T.M., a mildly retarded juvenile, was adjudicated delinquent based on acts that, if committed by an adult, would constitute fourth-degree criminal sexual contact under N.J.S.A. 2C:14-3b. Three years later, he moved to vacate the guilty plea when he learned that he would have to register as a sex offender under New Jersey's Registration and Community Notification Laws, N.J.S.A. 2:7-1 to -11 (generally referred to as Megan's Law). T.M. alleged that he did not enter his plea knowingly and voluntarily and that the plea lacked an adequate factual basis. The motion court upheld the plea, and the Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the delinquency hearing actually had proceeded as a trial on stipulated facts, not as a guilty plea. We granted certification, 163 N.J. 397 (2000), and now reverse.


The facts of this case were uncontested. A delinquency complaint charged that, on April 18, 1993, T.M., then age twelve but functioning at the level of a nine-year-old, committed an act of criminal sexual contact on T.H., a six-year-old girl. A delinquency proceeding was held on April 26, 1995, at which T.M., his mother, and counsel appeared. The prosecutor immediately informed the trial court as follows:

This matter was scheduled for trial, as the Court is well aware. [T.M.] was charged with criminal sexual contact under Docket 84-94. The particular statute was criminal sexual contact, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-3b, which as I'm reviewing the statute, is a fourth degree offense. The State is prepared at this time, in lieu of testimony, to place on the record the proffer that it would have made through its witnesses against [T.M.] in regard to this charge. And it's our understanding that the defense will not oppose that proffer and will accept that proffer as the factual basis for the charge. At which time . . . the State would then recommend the disposition to the Court, which again, all parties have been involved in the discussion of that.

Although the State's witnesses were in court and available to testify, in lieu of testimony the State made its proffer of the "factual basis" for the crime for the record:

Your Honor, the complaint states that on or about April 18, 1993, [T.M.] of 18 Fourth Avenue, Pitman, New Jersey, age 12, did in fact take . . . [T.H.], who was then six years old, into the shed on his property. Took her into the shed and locked the door and pulled down the shades. At that point, he removed her clothing, her bottom clothing, exposing her private area, or her vaginal area. He then kissed her area with his mouth, kissed that area with his mouth, and placed the palm of his hand on her vaginal area in a very hard pressing manner causing her discomfort. At or about that time, he did get off of her and she was able to leave the shed, and from here she told various persons, her grandmother, and Detective Kelly, and Mr. Osborn, of the events. And these testimonies would have been proffered through testimony had the State had an opportunity to put its case on.

Upon questioning by the court, the State indicated that T.H. had given that version of events, substantially contemporaneously with the incident, and that all persons named in the proffer were in court and ready to testify to the facts stated in the record.

T.M.'s counsel then made a statement expressing T.M.'s decision not to oppose the State's proffer of facts:

I've discussed this with my client, [T.M.], and with his mother. And we've — I've explained to him that the State was going to make its proffer and he has agreed — well, he's indicated he has no memory at this point of that day, which was approximately two years ago, but he has no opposition to the Court making a finding based upon the representation of the State.

Both defense counsel and the court questioned T.M. on the record, and the court also questioned T.M.'s mother regarding the decision not to oppose the State's proffer of facts. The court recited the State's proffer of facts, finding

[t]hat [T.M.] has taken the position today that he does not have any memory or any opposition to present the Court with regard to these facts. The Court will deem these facts to be true, to be unrebutted. Therefore, as a basis — as a result of those statements as spread over the record, for which there is no opposition, the Court's determination that such conduct did in fact constitute criminal sexual contact under 2C:14-3b. That being a fourth degree offense. The Court will therefore enter an adjudication of guilty against [T.M.].

The court sentenced T.M. to one-year probation, ordered him placed under the care and supervision of the Department of Human Services so he could receive services from the Division of Developmental Disabilities, and prohibited him from having any contact with T.H. or her family when she visited her great- grandmother in New Jersey.

Three years later, T.M. moved to vacate his guilty plea when his mother learned that he would be required to register as a sex offender under Megan's Law. T.M. maintained that the plea was entered without an adequate factual basis because the trial court never questioned him concerning his guilt of the criminal sexual contact offense underlying the delinquency charge. T.M. also argued that his plea was not voluntary or knowing, noting that the trial court did not make any inquiry concerning promises, inducements, or threats not disclosed by the record and that T.M. did not have an understanding of the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea.

At the hearing, the motion court heard testimony from T.M.'s mother regarding T.M.'s decision to plead guilty in the delinquency proceeding. The mother testified that T.M. had repeatedly asserted his innocence to her, but that she thought it best for T.M. to plead guilty because she believed he would receive a lesser charge and avoid being placed in a detention center. T.M.'s mother also testified that she was not sure that T.M. had understood the nature of the delinquency proceeding, stating that T.M. "kept asking [her], ?what do you mean, what do you mean,'" when she tried to explain the proceeding to him. The mother finally testified that T.M.'s retardation affected his comprehension.

The motion court denied T.M.'s motion to vacate the plea. The court found that T.M.'s "limited mental abilities" were relevant to the "voluntariness" of the plea and that T.M. "really did not provide a factual basis for the plea," but rather that the State had recited the evidence. Nonetheless, the motion court declined to substitute its judgment for the judgment of the trial court, which had the opportunity to observe T.M. and determine his ability to "know and understand the proceedings."

The Appellate Division affirmed. The panel acknowledged that the trial court presiding over the delinquency proceeding had not inquired of T.M. concerning his guilt of the criminal sexual offense or concerning his voluntary and knowing acquiescence to the proceeding. The panel observed, however, that the trial court made no such inquiries for a good reason: "This was not a guilty plea, but rather a trial on a set of uncontroverted facts." Implicit in that conclusion was a determination that the trial court need not have adhered to the provisions of Rule 3:9-2 that govern the entry of guilty pleas. The Appellate Division characterized the delinquency proceeding as "a trial on a set of uncontroverted facts":

T.M.'s position at the hearing was that he had no memory of the events of April 18, 1993. After hearing the factual proffer that was presented, with the witnesses present in court ready and willing to testify, [the trial court] was satisfied that the State established that the juvenile committed the acts underlying the complaint, and all of the elements of the criminal sexual contact were proven. The procedure that was followed was appropriate under the circumstances.

The Appellate Division held that the motion court properly denied T.M.'s motion to vacate, "no matter how it is characterized."

We disagree. We are compelled to conclude that this delinquency proceeding resulted in a guilty plea that lacked the procedural safeguards that should have attended it.



New Jersey's court Rules require that certain procedures accompany the taking of guilty pleas. Because a defendant pleading guilty waives important constitutional protections, the Rules are crafted to guarantee that the plea (1) has a sufficient factual basis, (2) is offered voluntarily, and (3) is given with a sufficient understanding of the nature of the charge and the consequences flowing from the plea. State v. Barboza, 115 N.J. 415, 420-21 (1989); State v. Taylor, 80 N.J. 353, 361- 62 (1979). Those "touchstone" requirements, State v. Warren, 115 N.J. 433, 442-43 (1989), have their historical roots in our case law, see, e.g., State v. Deutsch, 34 N.J. 190 (1961), but now are codified in Rule 3:9-2, which reads in relevant part:

A defendant may plead only guilty or not guilty to an offense. The court, in its discretion, may refuse to accept a plea of guilty and shall not accept such plea without first addressing the defendant personally and determining by inquiry of the defendant and others, in the court's discretion, that there is a factual basis for the plea and that the plea is made voluntarily, not as the result of any threats or of any promises or inducements not disclosed on the record, and with an understanding of the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea.

The specificity and rigor embodied in Rule 3:9-2 manifest a systemic awareness that a defendant waives significant constitutional rights when pleading guilty, which places an affirmative obligation on a court to reject a plea of guilty when that court is not independently satisfied that the Rule's prerequisites are met. State v. Smullen, 118 N.J. 408, 415 (1990).

Under Rule 3:9-2, a court taking a plea, except in a capital case, must satisfy itself through inquiry of the defendant and others, in its discretion, that an adequate factual basis exists for the plea. That rule applies to juvenile proceedings, so that a juvenile, just as an adult, must acknowledge or offer a factual basis for his or her guilty plea. In re J.R., 244 N.J. Super. 630, 632 (App. Div. 1990).

The requirement that a court elicit a factual basis for a plea serves a variety of purposes. The factual-basis requirement, among other things, protects a defendant who voluntarily and knowingly pleads, but without recognition that his or her conduct does not fall within the charge. It also provides a record for appellate review if the plea is later challenged and gives a court the opportunity to evaluate the conditions under which a plea is made. Barboza, supra, 115 N.J. at 421. Because of the constitutional values at stake, "we have been very sensitive to the requirement that there be an adequate factual basis for a plea of criminal guilt." Smullen, supra, 118 N.J. at 414. We have adopted the shorthand expression that the trial court "must be ?satisfied from the lips of the defendant that he committed the acts which constitute the crime.'" Barboza, supra, 115 N.J. at 422 (quoting State v. Stefanelli, 78 N.J. 418, 439 (1979) (Schreiber, J., concurring)). That does not mean that a court must follow a prescribed or artificial ritual. To the contrary, because different criminal charges and different defendants require courts to act flexibly to achieve constitutional ends, a factual basis, established either through inquiry of others, which a defendant acknowledges, or through direct admission by the defendant, should be examined in light of all surrounding circumstances and in the context of an entire plea colloquy. Smullen, supra, 118 N.J. at 415; Barboza, supra, 115 N.J. at 422; see also In re J.R., supra, 244 N.J. Super. at 637-39.

Furthermore, a court may accept a guilty plea only when that court "is convinced that the defendant has entered into it knowingly and voluntarily and with an understanding of its consequences." Warren, supra, 115 N.J. at 447; see also Taylor, supra, 80 N.J. at 353. A guilty plea that is not voluntary and knowing violates due process and thus is constitutionally defective. McCarthy v. United States, 394 ...

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