On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Indictment No. 09-05-0455.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baxter, J.A.D.
RECORD IMPOUNDED NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION
Argued September 29, 2010 - Decided Before Judges Wefing, Payne and Baxter.
The opinion of the court was delivered by BAXTER, J.A.D.
After entering a negotiated plea of guilty to the third-degree crime of endangering the welfare of a child, N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a), defendant Pierce Bryant appeals from his October 13, 2009 conviction. He raises a single claim: "an insufficient factual basis was given by the defendant for this offense and, as such, the conviction should be set aside." In particular, defendant urges us to construe the mental culpability element of the statute by holding that the mens rea element applies not only to the sexual conduct itself, but also to the result of that conduct. Accordingly, defendant argues that the trial court should not have accepted his guilty plea because he did not admit to knowledge that his conduct would impair or debauch the morals of the child. The State, in contrast, urges us to conclude that a defendant need not admit he was aware his conduct would debauch the morals of the child, and thus urges us to affirm defendant's conviction.
After considering the parties' respective arguments in light of the record and governing law, we conclude that a conviction for a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a) does not require proof that a defendant knew that his sexual conduct would impair or debauch the victim's morals. Instead, the State must prove, or a defendant must admit, only that he knowingly engaged in sexual conduct with a child below the age of sixteen and that such conduct had the capacity to impair or debauch the morals of the child.
In a four-count indictment returned by the Mercer County Grand Jury on May 1, 2009, defendant was charged with first-degree aggravated sexual assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a)(2)(a) (count one); third-degree aggravated criminal sexual contact, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-3(a) (count two); and two counts of third-degree endangering the welfare of a child, N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a) (counts three and four). The charges were based on allegations that defendant, who was then eighteen years old, engaged in sexual intercourse with a female relative who was fourteen years old, and who was at least four years younger than defendant.
After plea negotiations, defendant was offered the opportunity to plead guilty to a single count of third-degree endangering the welfare of a child, with the State agreeing to recommend a three-year suspended custodial sentence. Accepting the State's plea offer, defendant entered his guilty plea under oath on July 10, 2009. His factual basis was limited to his admission that he engaged in sexual intercourse with the victim when she was less than sixteen years of age. He was not asked, and did not admit, whether he agreed that such conduct "would impair or debauch the morals of the child." See N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a). Defendant's factual basis, as elicited by defense counsel, was limited to the following:
Q: Mr. Bryant, I want to direct your attention back to a time period between November 6, 2007 and April of 2008. In the City of Trenton, you did in fact engage in sexual conduct, that is, vaginal intercourse with a minor; is that correct?
Q: And her initials are [victim's initials]?
Q: She was under sixteen years old at the time; is that correct?
After asking defendant how old he was at the time of the plea, and learning that he was about to turn twenty, the judge made the following findings:
THE COURT: All right. The plea is made voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently.
Does not result from any threats or undisclosed promises. The defendant understands the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea. He is thinking clearly. There is a sufficient factual basis for the plea. He has testified to the necessary elements of the offense (emphasis added).
Approximately five months after sentencing, defendant was arrested for a violation of the conditions of his suspended custodial sentence. On March 9, 2010, the trial judge granted defendant's motion ...