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In re J.D.H.

May 01, 2002


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 336 N.J. Super. 614 (2001).


In this appeal, the Court is called on to determine the admissibility of a taped telephone conversation between the juvenile and the victim of his sexual assault during which the juvenile incriminated himself.

In April 1998, J.D.H., the juvenile, and C.D., another juvenile, attended a party at which C.D. became intoxicated. C.D.'s boyfriend, who also attended the party, entrusted J.D.H. to bring C.D. to J.D.H.'s house for the night so that C.D. cold "sleep it off" before returning to her home.

J.D.H. brought C.D. to his parents' home where he lived, and escorted her to his bedroom and helped her into his bed. J.D.H. then left the room. A brief time later, J.D.H. reentered the bedroom and joined C.D. in bed. He proceeded to touch and kiss C.D.'s breasts, digitally penetrate her vagina, and forcefully hold her hand on his penis until he ejaculated. C.D. testified that she told J.D.H. many times to cease his conduct and that she turned her body away from his to get him to stop. She stated that she was too weak and confused to take more assertive action. She also indicated that J.D.H. told her during the incident that her boyfriend "said it was okay," and that he was "doing this for [her boyfriend]."

A few days later, C.D. told her mother what had happened, and they contacted law enforcement authorities. After obtaining statements from C.D. and her mother, a detective from the Warren County Prosecutor's Office made arrangements to intercept a conversation between C.D. and J.D.H. The detective obtained authorization from the county prosecutor to tape record a telephone conversation between C.D. and J.D.H. pursuant to the New Jersey Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:156A-1 to -34. C.D. and her mother consented to the interception.

C.D. placed a telephone call to J.D.H. at his home that, unbeknownst to J.D.H., was being recorded at a State Police barracks in Warren County. Officials positioned the telephone so that the detective could listen to the conversation and assist C.D. in formulating the appropriate questions to ask. J.D.H. was sixteen years old at the time. The detective explained to the trial court her involvement, stating that if C.D. "got stuck," the detective would write down what she thought was appropriate for her to ask. The detective stated that she was not asking leading questions, but questions that would elicit the truth of what occurred.

J.D.H. incriminated himself during the taped conversation. When asked by C.D. what happened on the night in question, J.D.H. first gave an innocent account of the events. C.D. responded by saying she had not fallen asleep, and knew what had happened, and that she wanted J.D.H. to apologize for his actions. After J.D.H. indicated that he would admit to making C.D. "jerk [him] off" and having undressed her, C.D. asked why he had acted in that fashion. J.D.H. responded, "I don't know why I did it." J.D.H. also said he was sorry if he took advantage of her, and also, "I'm sorry, I will do anything to make it up to you, anything. What do you want?" Essentially, C.D. kept asking the juvenile to admit what he had done, and that she needed to hear him admit the truth as part of the healing process. J.D.H. stated, "I don't know what came over me, I really don't. I've never done anything like this before in my life, I would never do it again. . . . Ever since then I haven't been able to sleep."

In September 1998, J.D.H. was tried for acts that, if committed by an adult, would constitute aggravated sexual assault. The trial court admitted the taped conversation over the objections of J.D.H.'s counsel. The court determined that J.D.H. was not in police custody during the conversation and that he spoke voluntarily to C.D., consistent with applicable legal standards. The trial court adjudicated J.D.H. delinquent for commission of aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault by physical force, and other offenses. It committed him to twelve months at the New Jersey Training School for Boys in Jamesburg and ordered him to undergo sex-offender therapy.

In a reported decision, the Appellate Division reversed the adjudication of delinquency and remanded for a new trial. In the Interest of J.D.H., 336 N.J. Super. 614 (2001). The panel held that the trial court erred in admitting the conversation intercepted by police in the absence of "parental consent or involvement." The Appellate Division did not reach J.D.H.'s alternative argument that, as written, the Wiretap Act prohibited the use of consensual interceptions in delinquency investigations.

The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification to consider the admissibility of J.D.H.'s statements and J.D.H.'s cross-petition to determine whether the State's conduct violated the Wiretap Act.

HELD: The juvenile's statements are admissible, because the juvenile was not in custody and there are no other reasons to doubt that the statements were made voluntarily. The Wiretap Act does not prohibit intercepting communications of juvenile suspects.

1. J.D.H.'s incriminatory statements were not the product of a custodial interrogation. C.D. placed the telephone call to J.D.H.'s home, and J.D.H. was free to terminate the conversation at any time. From J.D.H.'s perspective, there were no objective indications that he was a suspect or being singled out for questioning by police. The Court disagrees with the Appellate Division's application of the decision in State v. Presha, 163 N.J. 304 (2000), to this non-custodial setting. In Presha, the Court considered the voluntariness of a confession by a juvenile rendered during interrogation while in police custody. The Court held that unless police use their best efforts to locate the juvenile's parent or guardian, and unless the parent or guardian is truly unavailable, the adult's absence will render a young offender's statement inadmissible. The Court is persuaded that the type of pressure inherent in a custodial interrogation, the focus of the Court's concern in Presha, did not exist here. In the absence of any other reason to doubt the voluntariness of the J.D.H.'s statements, the Court holds that the trial court did not err in admitting them into evidence at trial. (pp. 6-9)

2. J.D.H. also contends that the Wiretap Act's use of the phrase "criminal conduct" was meant to exclude the police from intercepting communications of juvenile suspects. J.D.H. argues that as a juvenile, he could be adjudicated only for acts of "delinquency" but could not be prosecuted for adult "crimes." The Court finds nothing in the text or legislative history of the Wiretap Act that demonstrates convincingly that the Legislature intended the Act to apply only to investigations of adult suspects. The prosecutor's prior approval of the interception, together with the consent given by C.D. and her mother, satisfied the Act's requirements. (pp. 10-12)

3. The Court expresses no opinion on the appropriateness of the trial court's ultimate disposition, including the term of commitment imposed. It notes, however, that a considerable amount of time that has elapsed since the trial court completed its adjudication and rendered its final disposition. In view of that circumstance, the trial court is directed to re-examine whether the terms of its original disposition should be modified or affirmed. (pp. 12-13)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for reinstatement of the adjudication of delinquency and ...

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