October 20, 2009
STATE OF NEW JERSEY IN THE INTEREST OF J.F.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Burlington County, Docket No. FJ-03-872-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 7, 2009
Before Judges Graves and J.N. Harris.
J.F. was tried as a juvenile and adjudicated delinquent. He was found to have committed acts which, if committed by an adult, would have constituted: 1) fourth-degree possession of a weapon under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for such lawful uses as it may have, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(d) and 2) third-degree possession of a weapon with a purpose to use it unlawfully against the person or property of another, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2(a)(3)(a). J.F. argues that the adjudications are against the weight of the evidence and must be reversed. Based upon our thorough review of the record and the law, we conclude that the trial court's findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence and its conclusions are consistent with controlling legal principles. Accordingly, we affirm.
J.F. was accused of possessing a gravity-type knife*fn1 that he was prepared to use against a person or property of a person who he believed was courting a former girlfriend. Although some of the State's evidence arguably was attenuated (such as the fact that a witness did not observe the entire weapon, but only a few inches of it), nevertheless, given our standard of review and the findings - including credibility determinations - of the trial judge, there is little to commend the juvenile's position. The witnesses' recounting of the events of October 29, 2007, including information from the alleged suitor who was initially confronted by J.F., but then turned out to be J.F.'s friend, provide more than sufficient credible evidence to convince a trier of fact that J.F.'s conduct was contrary to law. We subscribe to the trial court's able description:
Court finds as a fact that he possessed the weapon, the knife with the purpose to use it unlawfully against a person, and that person being anyone who came to see Ms. D who he was not cool with, and he possessed it also not only with the purpose to perhaps use it - to use it unlawfully against the person, but he clearly stated that he intended to, if an individual involved - or if an individual came to Ms. D's home by way of motor vehicle that he intended to break the windows and slash the tires. And, again, what better way to slash the tires than with the knife that the Court finds Mr. F possessed.
It is well established that the State is required to prove every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Delibero, 149 N.J. 90, 99 (1997). The same allocation of the burden of proof applies in juvenile delinquency proceedings. State ex rel J.G., 151 N.J. 565, 593-94 (1997). Upon examination of a judge's verdict in a non-jury case, the standard of review for determining if the State satisfied its burden is not whether the verdict was against the weight of the evidence, but rather "whether there is sufficient credible evidence in the record to support the judge's determination." State ex rel R.V., 280 N.J. Super. 118, 121 (App. Div. 1995). Moreover, we should "give deference to those findings of the trial judge which are substantially influenced by the opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the 'feel' of the case, which a reviewing court cannot enjoy." State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999) (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161-62 (1964)).
"[T]he factual findings of the trial court are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence." State in the Interest of W.M., 364 N.J. Super. 155, 165 (App. Div. 2003); see also State in the Interest of J.P.F., 368 N.J. Super. 24, 31 (App. Div.) (noting that appellate court will defer to the trial judge's factual findings where they are supported by "substantial, credible evidence in the record as a whole"), certif. denied, 180 N.J. 453 (2004). Such deference is appropriate because even the best and most accurate transcript of oral testimony "is like a dehydrated peach; it has neither the substance nor the flavor of the peach before it was dried." State v. Locurto, supra, 157 N.J. at 472 (internal quotation marks omitted).
"'[W]e do not disturb the factual findings and legal conclusions of the trial judge unless we are convinced that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice.'" Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974) (quoting Fagliarone v. Twp. of N. Bergen, 78 N.J. Super. 154, 155 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 40 N.J. 221 (1963)). This is not a case where we are inclined to interfere with the trial court's hands-on and well-developed findings and conclusions.