April 3, 2008
STATE OF NEW JERSEY IN THE INTEREST OF A.T.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Union County, Docket No. FJ-20-1532-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 5, 2008
Before Judges Fuentes and Chambers.
A.T., a juvenile, was tried before the Family Part and adjudicated to have committed an act of delinquency by engaging in conduct that, if committed by an adult, would constitute the crimes of second-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(B)1; and third-degree possession of a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5D. The court sentenced A.T. to an indeterminate term of incarceration, not to exceed eighteen months, and assessed the mandatory fines and penalties.
On appeal, A.T. argues that the trial court committed reversible error by failing to declare a mistrial based on his need for a language interpreter. Specifically, long after the commencement of the trial, the court became aware that the juvenile might need a Spanish language interpreter to understand what was taking place in the proceedings, including the court's rulings, counsel's presentation, and witnesses' testimony, and to effectively testify as a witness in his own defense. A.T. argues on appeal that despite trial counsel's affirmative indication that a mistrial was not warranted because A.T.: (1) understood the trial proceedings, including the witnesses' testimony; and (2) was able to assist in his own defense, the trial court should have sua sponte declared a mistrial. A.T. also argues that the State failed to prove the charges against him beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the court relied on improper factors in reaching the sentence imposed.
We reject these arguments and affirm. After reviewing the record, we are satisfied that the evidence supports the Family Part's conclusion that, despite some linguistic limitations, A.T. understood the nature of the charges against him, understood the testimony of the witnesses called by the State, and was able to assist his trial counsel in his own defense.
These are the facts. A juvenile identified as A.F. testified that he was physically assaulted while he was visiting a friend's house. The assault may have been in retaliation for an earlier fight involving A.F. and another juvenile; they both attended the same high school.
According to A.F., a group consisting of about twenty-five people showed up at the friend's apartment. Two individuals from this group managed to enter the apartment. Once inside, the two grabbed A.F. by the neck and began hitting him in the chest. A.F. fought back and the fight moved out of the apartment and into the hallway. At this point, A.F. noticed A.T. and recognized him from previous encounters on the street.
A.F. testified that A.T. came toward him without saying a word, and "threw a punch" at him. One of the two other individuals in the hallway then threw a knife to A.T, while the other hit A.F. on his leg with a pipe. As the combatants continued to engage one another, the scuffle migrated from the hallway to the porch of the house, where the remaining members of the original group of twenty-five were gathered.
At this point, according to A.F., the group pounced on him; grabbed him and hit him on the head with a hammer. It was also at this point that A.T. stabbed A.F. in his left arm and right thigh. A.F. then apparently lost consciousness. The next thing he remembers is waking up in the entrance of his grandfather's house located less than a block away from where the fighting took place.
A.F.'s grandfather reported the incident to the police. As A.F. laid on a stretcher about to be transported by ambulance to the hospital, the police brought A.T. to the scene and asked A.F. if A.T. was one of the assailants. A.F. identified A.T. as the person who had stabbed him.
A.F. was the first witness to testify at trial. The second witness was one of the police officers who had responded to the report of an assault and had been present at the time A.F. identified A.T. as one of his attackers. B.A. was the third witness to testify for the State. He identified himself as the person who gave A.T. the knife he used to stab A.F. The fourth and fifth State's witnesses, J.M and J.S., admitted to being part of the group who had assaulted A.F. They both had previously pled guilty to charges associated with the assault on A.F. Although they did not see the actual stabbing, they saw A.T. engage in a "stabbing motion" against A.F.
We now address the interpreter question. We recognize and reaffirm the importance of interpreters as a vital part of the right to a fair trail. As noted by the Law Division in State v. Rodriguez, 294 N.J. Super. 129, 139 (Law Division 1996):
[I]n exercising the court's discretion, the trial judge must be sensitive to the possible need for a court interpreter and, in weighing such need, should view the interpreter as something potentially indispensable to the discharge of justice rather than some frivolous, burdensome, or evasive machination.
We have come to a similar conclusion at the appellate level. State v. Guzman, 313 N.J. Super. 363, 378-79 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 156 N.J. 424 (1998).
The issue concerning A.T.'s language difficulties arose in the following context. At the end of the State's case, defense counsel moved for a directed verdict in favor of A.T. The court denied the motion, prompting the judge to address A.T. directly about whether he wished to testify in his own defense, or invoke his right to remain silent. In the course of this exchange, the trial judge became aware that A.T. had certain linguistic limitations that might have affected his ability to understand the testimonial evidence presented.
At this point of the trial, the record shows that the judge conducted a thorough and comprehensive examination in order to ascertain the extent of A.T.'s language difficulties. The court questioned A.T. directly, carefully probing the depth of his understanding of the court's proceedings, including his ability to assist his trial counsel in his own defense. After this inquiry, which included active participation by defense counsel, the court found that despite some obvious difficulty associated with a limited vocabulary, A.T. had a sufficient command of the English language to have understood the testimonial evidence presented at trial; he was also able to understand the court and his counsel.
Our standard of review in this area is well-settled. We are bound by the trial court's findings that are well-supported by the competent evidence in the record. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999). That deference compels us to sustain the trial court's denial of A.T.'s motion for a directed verdict at the end of the State's case. The testimony of the State's witnesses which the judge was free to accept, provided ample support for the court's factual findings. The court's order of disposition was well within the authority provided by the Juvenile Justice Code. N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-43.
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