July 10, 2008
STATE OF NEW JERSEY IN THE INTEREST OF T.G.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. FJ-12-000899-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted June 4, 2008
Before Judges Lisa and Lihotz.
Following a bench trial, T.G., a juvenile, was adjudicated delinquent based on a finding he committed conduct that, if attributed to an adult, would constitute second-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1a(1). T.G. appeals from the Family Part order that adjudicated him delinquent and committed him to the custody of the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) for two years, arguing:
A JUDGMENT OF ACQUITTAL SHOULD BE ENTERED BECAUSE THE STATE FAILED TO PROVE THAT THE JUVENILE SHARED A PURPOSE TO COMMIT AN ACT OF DELINQUENCY.
THE DISPOSITION OF THE TRIAL COURT WHEREIN IT COMMITTED T.G. TO THE JUVENILE JUSTICE COMMISSION FOR A PERIOD OF [TWO] YEARS WAS EXCESSIVE.
These facts were presented at trial. On May 6, 2006, around 7:30 p.m., fifteen-year old W.B. was riding his bicycle along a trail near Martin Luther King Elementary School in Piscataway. As W.B. rode on the bike trail, two cars approached and stopped. W.B. believed there were four passengers in each of the two cars and he was certain four passengers exited and came towards him. Three youths wore long white t-shirts and tied a second t-shirt over their face "like a mask." The fourth person was T.G. who wore a tank top, a black t-shirt tied over his mouth, and a "doo rag" on his head.
One youth approached W.B., hit him in the eye and knocked him off of his bicycle. As W.B. rose to his feet, two others attacked him. In total, W.B. was struck by three different people, receiving resultant injuries of a black eye, a "busted" lip, and broken glasses. The assailants took fourteen dollars and W.B.'s bicycle.
W.B. was not familiar with the three youths who assaulted him, however, he recognized the fourth person as T.G., whom he knew from school. W.B. said he was certain it was T.G. because he recognized his distinctive sideburns and distinguished his eyes. W.B. stated T.G. did not hit him "he just walked up and stopped" as he looked at W.B. on the ground.
On May 10, 2006, after receiving his Miranda*fn1 rights, T.G. was questioned regarding the incident. He explained he was in a car with four others en route to a party. As the vehicle approached the park, someone, whom T.G. did not know, told the driver to pull over. T.G. insisted he remained in the car listening to the radio. He provided the names of two passengers and stated he was unfamiliar with the other two. During a second interview, T.G. acknowledged he had gotten out of the vehicle.
At trial, T.G. testified in his own behalf. He was adamant he was in the vehicle at all times, after it stopped. The two passengers he did not know stepped out of the vehicle. He stated he paid no attention to what was happening and just listened to music. When the two youths returned, he asked them what happened and they declined to say. T.G. told the driver to take him home. He then noticed a second car following his vehicle. T.G. admitted he was wearing a "doo rag."
Judge Daley credited W.B.'s testimony and determined T.G. was "not telling the truth." Finding that T.G. "did not strike [W.B.], but the fact that he was there and by being present, that type of presence is . . . someone who is aiding and abetting, helping these other three thugs to accomplish . . . a strong arm robbery," the court concluded T.G. was guilty as an accomplice pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:2-6.
Our review of a Family Part judge's decision in a juvenile trial is limited to a determination of whether the factual findings made could reasonably have been reached on substantial, credible evidence in the record, given the State's burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. State ex rel. J.P.F., 368 N.J. Super. 24, 31 (App. Div. 2004) (citing State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999)). "We must give deference to those findings of the trial judge which are substantially influenced by his or her opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and have the 'feel' of the case, which we do not enjoy upon appellate review." State ex rel. S.B., 333 N.J. Super. 236, 241 (App. Div. 2000). "Deference is especially appropriate when the evidence is largely testimonial and involves questions of credibility because, having heard the case and seen and observed the witnesses, the [Family Part judge], has a better perspective than a reviewing court in evaluating the veracity of witnesses." P.B. v. T.H., 370 N.J. Super. 586, 601 (App. Div. 2004) (citing Pascale v. Pascale, 113 N.J. 20, 33 (1988)).
We reverse only if we are satisfied the findings are clearly mistaken such that the interest of justice demands intervention and correction. S.B., supra, 333 N.J. Super. at 241. However, a trial judge's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference. Ibid. Keeping these principles in mind, we examine T.G.'s argument that the record does not contain sufficient credible evidence to support the trial judge's determination that T.G.'s presence during the robbery and assault of W.B. established culpability.
T.G. argues that "[a]t best the [S]tate's evidence . . . proved . . . T.G. was in the car and got out after W.B. had been beaten and robbed. The [S]tate did not produce any evidence of any prior planning, conversation, or agreement among the beaters and T.G." Thus, the State failed to prove the necessary element of intent. We disagree.
T.G.'s argument ignores the evidence showing he was present with the others and wore a shirt to hide his face and a doo rag on his head. As articulated by Judge Daley, T.G.'s complicity in the strong-arm robbery of W.B. was demonstrated by his presence at the scene along with the three who assaulted W.B. Additionally, T.G. disguised his appearance, as did the other assailants. Finally, T.G. peered at W.B., who lay on the ground after being struck by the others, and T.G. did not aid or help his injured classmate. These facts, coupled with the trial judge's credibility findings, unmistakably support the court's conclusion that T.G. was not merely an innocent passenger in the car, but was present with the intent to aid the others in the commission of the robbery. The court's conclusion that the State's direct and circumstantial evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt that T.G.'s conduct satisfied N.J.S.A. 2C:2-6(c)(1)(b) will not be disturbed.
Our review also provides no basis to interfere with the court's exercised discretion in entering disposition. "In fashioning a disposition for a juvenile adjudicated delinquent, the court is required to weigh several factors including the nature and circumstances of the offense and the impact of the offense on the community. N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-43(a)(1), (10). State ex rel. D.A., 385 N.J. Super. 411, 415 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 188 N.J. 355 (2006). "The Juvenile Code expressly seeks a balance between the safety of the public, accountability of the juvenile for his conduct, and rehabilitation of the juvenile offender." Id. at 418 (citing N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-21). Confinement is an authorized disposition pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-43(b), which may be ordered after weighing all present aggravating and mitigating factors. N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-43(c)(3)(b).
A reviewing court will not set aside a juvenile disposition or otherwise interfere with a trial judge's proper exercise of discretion. State v. Roth, 95 N.J. 334, 364-65 (1984). We reject T.G.'s argument suggesting probation was warranted. Judge Daley assessed the offense, which was an unprovoked attack of an innocent minor who was then left beaten and robbed on a bike path. The judge found no mitigating factors and determined there was serious impact on the victim and his family and a need to deter future conduct. T.G.'s significant juvenile history, which includes a prior robbery, possession of marijuana, and a violation of probation further militates against a probationary disposition.