April 11, 2008
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
IN THE INTEREST OF J.L.M. JUVENILE-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Gloucester County, Docket No. FJ-08-1613-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted March 31, 2008
Before Judges Collester, C.S. Fisher and C.L. Miniman.
J.L.M. was charged with delinquency for conduct that would have constituted aggravated sexual assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a)(1), sexual assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(b), and endangering the welfare of a child, N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a), if committed by an adult. He unsuccessfully moved to suppress a confession given during police interrogation and, at the conclusion of a trial, was found to have engaged in sexual contact, contrary to the provisions of N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(b), with a twelve-year old girl he met on the internet. The judge imposed a two-year probationary term subject to Megan's Law notification requirements.
On appeal, the juvenile raises the following arguments for our consideration:
I. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DENYING THE JUVENILE'S MOTION TO SUPPRESS HIS INCULPATORY STATEMENTS MADE AT THE GLOUCESTER COUNTY PROSECUTOR'S OFFICE IN THE ABSENCE OF HIS MOTHER.
A. [THE JUVENILE'S MOTHER'S] ABSENCE FROM THE INTERVIEW ROOM AMOUNTED TO A "DELIBERATE EXCLUSION BY THE POLICE" BECAUSE IT WAS AN INVESTIGATIVE TACTIC THAT WAS DESIGNED TO SECURE AN INCULPATORY STATEMENT BY J.L.M.
B. THE TRIAL COURT FAILED TO CONSIDER THE IMPROPER SOLICITATIONS MADE BY THE TWO DETECTIVES THAT THEY WERE THERE TO "HELP" J.L.M. IN ITS ANALYSIS UNDER THE "TOTALITY OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES TEST."
C. THE TRIAL COURT ABUSED ITS DISCRETION IN REJECTING DR. WOLFSON'S OPINION THAT THE JUVENILE'S STATEMENTS WERE INVOLUNTARY AND COERCED AS AN IMPROPER "NET OPINION."
II. THE TRIAL COURT ABUSED ITS DISCRETION IN NOT ENTERING SUA SPONTE A JUDGMENT OF ACQUITTAL AT THE END OF THE STATE'S CASE, AND IN ADJUDICATING THE JUVENILE DELINQUENT THE TRIAL COURT DILUTED THE CONCEPTS OF REASONABLE DOUBT AND THE PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE BY IMPROPERLY APPLYING THE DOCTRINE OF JUDICIAL NOTICE.
A. THE TRIAL COURT SHOULD HAVE ENTERED A JUDGMENT OF ACQUITTAL SUA SPONTE AT THE END OF THE STATE'S CASE.
B. IN ADJUDICATING J.L.M. DELINQUENT THE TRIAL COURT DILUTED THE CONCEPTS OF REASONABLE DOUBT AND THE PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE BY IMPROPERLY APPLYING THE DOCTRINE OF JUDICIAL NOTICE.
III. THE TRIAL COURT ABUSED ITS DISCRETION IN IMPOSING A 2 YEAR PERIOD OF PROBATION SUBJECT TO THE NOTIFICATION REQUIREMENTS OF MEGAN'S LAW.
A. THE TRIAL COURT ABUSED ITS DISCRETION IN FAILING TO CONSIDER THE AGGRAVATING AND MITIGATING FACTORS PRESENT.
B. THE TRIAL COURT ABUSED ITS DISCRETION IN WAIVING A PREDISPOSITION REPORT.
We find insufficient merit in Point II to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(2).*fn1 We also reject Point I, but we agree that the disposition must be vacated and the matter remanded for further disposition proceedings.
The juvenile's motion to suppress the statements he gave to the police was based upon his contention that the police orchestrated the situation in order to remove his mother from the interrogation room. Although the testimony of the police and the juvenile's mother at the suppression hearing was in conflict, the trial judge found credible the State's version of these events. Because nothing in the record undermines the judge's findings, we defer. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 470-73 (1999).
Detective Stacy Lick testified that the juvenile was arrested and brought to the prosecutor's office to be questioned. The juvenile's mother was contacted and soon arrived. Detective Lick testified that she read to both the juvenile and his mother his Miranda*fn2 rights, and both signed a waiver form. With the juvenile's mother present, the police questioned the juvenile for approximately ninety minutes; during this session, the juvenile denied engaging in sexual relations with the victim. According to the judge, the mother believed the juvenile in this regard and left the room "in an effort to have the discussion simply end and to satisfy the officers that he was being truthful." The judge also held that the juvenile's mother "volunteered to leave the room so that [the juvenile] would be less embarrassed and more forthcoming."
Following his mother's departure from the room and on further questioning, the juvenile confessed to having sexual relations with the twelve-year old victim. Detective Lick then left the room and requested that the juvenile's mother give permission for the recording of the juvenile's statement. Again, the juvenile and his mother were advised of his Miranda rights, and they again waived those rights. On tape, the juvenile acknowledged that he had signed the waiver form and he then gave a statement that he had sexual relations with the victim.
The admissibility of inculpatory statements by a juvenile during police interrogation is a matter governed by State v. Presha, 163 N.J. 304 (2000). There, the Court emphasized the importance of a parent's presence during police interrogation of a juvenile and drew a bright line prohibiting the use of statements taken from a juvenile under the age of fourteen in the absence of a parent or legal guardian. Id. at 315. As for older juveniles, the Court concluded that the absence of a parent or guardian from interrogation is a "highly significant factor" that should be given "added weight when balancing it against all other factors." Ibid. And, when a parent or guardian is unavailable or declines to accompany the juvenile, the police are bound to conduct the interrogation with "the highest standards of due process and fundamental fairness." Id. at 317 (quoting In re S.H., 61 N.J. 108, 115 (1972)).
The judge fully discussed these principles and we are satisfied from her thorough opinion that she correctly applied them. Indeed, the judge further explored the juvenile's contention that, even though he was then seventeen years old, his intelligence and maturity level were less than what his age might ordinarily suggest. Evidence was presented that the juvenile was a high school senior who took special education courses and had only participated in one "main stream" course in high school. The judge considered this, as well as the evidence provided by the juvenile's expert and the judge's own observations of the juvenile, in concluding that the juvenile had greater intelligence and maturity than a fourteen-year old and that the confession was not subject to the bright line rule that precludes the admission of statements given by unaccompanied juveniles under the age of fourteen. It is noteworthy in this regard, as the judge observed, that the juvenile's expert never testified as to the juvenile's IQ or whether his intelligence or maturity required that he be considered as if younger than fourteen years old.
In short, the judge applied correct legal principles and made findings that are supported by evidence the judge was entitled to find credible. As a result, we affirm the order denying the suppression motion, and because, as we have observed, there is no merit in Point II, we affirm the adjudication of delinquency.
In Point III, the juvenile argues and the State concedes that, in disposing of the matter, the trial judge mistakenly failed to place on the record her findings regarding any aggravating or mitigating factors, or a description of how her weighing of any such factors resulted in the disposition imposed. We observe in this regard our recent holding that a trial judge cannot waive a pre-disposition report unless expressly waived by the juvenile. In re T.A., 386 N.J. Super. 642, 644 (App. Div. 2006). Here, defense counsel, and not the juvenile, waived the right to the preparation and submission of a pre-disposition report; that is not enough. Ibid. (observing in that case that "[e]ven though the juvenile lodged no objection to the deficient procedure on the day of disposition or before, he did not specifically waive the preparation of a pre-disposition report," and that the right to a pre-disposition report can only be waived with the express consent of the juvenile). Accordingly, following today's judgment, a predisposition report should be prepared and submitted to the judge in advance of her disposition of the matter.
We affirm the denial of the juvenile's suppression motion and the adjudication of delinquency; we vacate the disposition and remand for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.