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State of New Jersey v. J.A.C

June 14, 2012

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
J.A.C., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Patterson

New Jersey Supreme Court

SYLLABUS

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized.)

State v. J.A.C.

(A-102-10) (067520)

Argued November 9, 2011 -- Decided June 14, 2012

PATTERSON, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

In this appeal the Court is required to apply New Jersey's Rape Shield Law, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7 to a case in which defendant contended that the child victim fabricated the allegations against him to deflect attention from her own misconduct.

C.A. was born in 1991. Following her parents' divorce when C.A. was almost four years old, she moved with her mother and younger brother to New Jersey. In 1998, C.A.'s mother began dating defendant, a divorced father of one child. In 1999, C.A.'s mother and defendant had a daughter. In November 2000, defendant moved in with C.A.'s mother and the three children. C.A. was nine years old. C.A.'s mother worked several evenings per week, and relied upon a variety of child care arrangements, including the children's grandparents, a babysitter and defendant. Defendant moved out of C.A.'s home in 2001.

In March 2003, C.A. -- then twelve -- engaged in instant message conversations with seventeen adult men; communications with six of those men included sexually explicit language. In her instant messages, C.A. did not mention defendant or report any history of sexual abuse. Instead, C.A. peppered her communications with sexual vulgarities -- learned, she reported, by reading the online exchanges of others -- as she attempted to impersonate a sexually experienced adult. On March 26, 2003, C.A.'s mother discovered the instant messages. The events of the next two days were disquieting for C.A., as her parents and teachers reacted to the revelation of her online behavior. Both parents considered the child's immediate move to her father's family in Indiana. At a meeting attended by C.A.'s school guidance counselor, her parents, and her homeroom teacher, C.A., for the first time, accused defendant of sexual abuse, saying that defendant had "fingered" her. The school contacted the police, and C.A., her parents and teachers were questioned.

On November 19, 2003, defendant was indicted on one count of first-degree aggravated sexual assault, six counts of second-degree sexual assault, and three counts of second-degree endangering the welfare of a child. Some of these charges related to defendant's former stepdaughter and the trials were ultimately severed. According to C.A.'s trial testimony, defendant made her "very uncomfortable" on several occasions shortly after he moved in with her family by touching and rubbing her leg or chest, and by exposing himself to her. Defendant consistently maintained that his relationship with C.A. was entirely appropriate and denied any sexual abuse.

Defendant moved to compel production of C.A.'s instant messages. The State turned over instant messages between C.A. and one individual. Defendant moved to admit the messages into evidence at trial based upon his defense that C.A. had fabricated her allegations against him, as well as the messages' potential to explain C.A.'s familiarity with sexual topics and to provide an alternative source of any injuries that might be found in her physical examination. The trial court found that the instant messages were protected by N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7, and permitted them to be used at trial only for the limited purpose of explaining a physical injury to C.A. in the event that the State were to proffer an expert to prove such injury. The trial court also ruled that the fact that C.A. had sent and received explicit messages could be admitted to show that C.A.'s allegations "did not arise until the victim had been officially confronted by the authorities (i.e., to divert attention from the victim by accusing the [d]efendant)."

Following a Rule 104 hearing, the trial court ruled that defendant could elicit from C.A. and other witnesses evidence showing that C.A. had engaged in "explicit instant message communications" with six individuals, but that the specific content of those communications could not be disclosed. On October 31, 2007, the jury convicted defendant on the single count of first-degree sexual assault and three counts of second-degree endangering the welfare of a child. Defendant was sentenced to a twenty-year prison term with a ten-year period of parole ineligibility for the single count of first-degree aggravated sexual assault, and a concurrent ten-year prison sentence for the remaining counts.

On January 7, 2011, an Appellate Division panel affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence. The panel held that C.A.'s instant messages constituted "sexual conduct" under N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7(f), regardless of whether the activity to which they referred represented fact or fantasy. The panel noted the absence of a nexus between the substance of the messages and the issues determined in defendant's trial.

The Supreme Court granted defendant's petition for certification "limited to the issue of whether defendant should have been permitted to introduce the sexually explicit content of the instant messages sent by the minor, female victim to other adult males." State v. J.A.C., 205 N.J. 519 (2011).

HELD: The content of the instant messages written by and to the victim in this case constitutes "sexual conduct" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7(f), and that content is therefore protected by New Jersey's Rape Shield Law. Any probative value of the content of the victim's messages is substantially outweighed by its prejudice.

1. N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7 serves "to protect the privacy interests of the victim while ensuring a fair determination of the issues bearing on the guilt or innocence of the defendant." State v. Schnabel, 196 N.J. 116, 128 (2008). The statute guards against "unwarranted and unscrupulous foraging for character-assassination information about the victim." State v. P.S., 202 N.J. 232, 261 (2010). The purpose of the statute, enacted in 1978 as part of the creation of New Jersey's Criminal Code, was to "strictly limit [] the introduction of evidence of the victim's previous sexual conduct" in the trial of several enumerated offenses. Statement to Senate Bill No. 738, at 56 (May 15, 1978). The law was amended in 1988 to specifically address evidence pertaining to child victims of sexual abuse. A series of amendments progressively strengthening N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7 clearly demonstrates the Legislature's policy to direct the focus of sexual assault trials toward the alleged crime, and away from the lifestyle of the victim. (pp. 16-20)

2. The constitutional rights of confrontation and compulsory process have "long been recognized as essential to the due process right to a 'fair opportunity to defend against the State's accusations,' and thus [are] 'among the minimum essentials of a fair trial.'" State v. Garron, 177 N.J. 147, 169 (2003). These rights, however, are "not absolute, and may, in appropriate circumstances, bow to competing interests." State v. Budis, 125 N.J. 519, 531 (1991). In Budis, the Court held that to avoid a violation of the federal and New Jersey constitutional rights to confrontation and compulsory process, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7 should be construed to permit evidence of a victim's sexual conduct if "the evidence [is] relevant to the defense . . . [and] its probative value outweighs its prejudicial effect." Budis, supra, at 532. That test was reaffirmed and refined in Garron, in which the Court held that "evidence relevant to the defense that has probative value outweighing its prejudicial effect must be placed before the trier of fact." Garron, supra, at 172. Trial courts are required to weigh the relevance, necessity and impact of evidence relating to a victim's sexual history, and to impose case-specific parameters, where appropriate, to any such evidence admitted. (pp. 20-24)

3. Whether C.A.'s attempts to impersonate an experienced adult communicated fact or fantasy, the instant messages clearly constituted "sexual conduct" and the trial court's determination that the communications fell within the scope of the Rape Shield Law was correct. The specific content of C.A.'s instant messages is at best minimally relevant to defendant's effort to demonstrate the child's motive to lie. The testimony permitted by the trial court unmistakably established that C.A. implicated defendant in the midst of a confrontation with her parents and teachers that was unprecedented in her young life. The instant messages, however, are not admissible to prove that this victim had a propensity for invention. A ruling permitting detailed questioning about the language of the messages could have a profound and permanent impact on a sixteen-year-old victim, invading her privacy and subjecting her to a humiliating experience without advancing the truth-seeking purpose of a trial. Such a ruling would divert the attention of the jury from the crimes alleged and would effect considerable prejudice in this case without any corresponding benefit because the contested evidence is of minimal probative value. Consistent with the Legislature's objective in enacting N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7, and this Court's analysis in Budis and Garron, the trial court properly excluded the evidence. (pp. 24-33)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, HOENS, and JUDGE WEFING (temporarily assigned) join in JUSTICE PATTERSON's opinion.

Argued November 9, 2011 --

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

JUSTICE PATTERSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

New Jersey's Rape Shield Law, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7, protects the privacy of a victim of sexual assault against unwarranted exploration of his or her character and conduct. The Legislature recognized that the fair trial constitutionally guaranteed to a defendant should focus upon the crime alleged, not the history or habits of the victim. The statute and the case law construing it require trial judges to carefully balance the need to permit thorough exploration of issues relevant to the defendant's guilt or innocence against the protection of victims who report their alleged abusers.

Today the Court is required to apply N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7 to a case in which defendant contended that the child victim fabricated the allegations against him to deflect attention from her own misconduct. At the age of twelve, C.A. alleged that defendant J.A.C., her mother's former boyfriend, had sexually abused her on multiple occasions when she was nine years old.

C.A. accused defendant of abuse in the midst of a family crisis. Her mother had discovered that the child, attempting to impersonate a sexually active college student, had engaged in sexually explicit instant message correspondence with adult men. With her internet communications exposed, C.A. faced serious discipline and the prospect that she would be separated from her home, friends and school, and sent to live with her father in another state.

At his trial, defendant sought to introduce into evidence the content of those internet communications to show that the child's belated allegation of sexual abuse was fabricated to deflect her parents' unwelcome attention to her own behavior. Defendant was permitted to introduce evidence that twelve-year-old C.A. had engaged in sexually explicit communications with adult men whom she met online. He was also allowed to demonstrate that the discovery of the messages deeply distressed C.A.'s family, precipitated upsetting confrontations in the child's home and school, and led C.A.'s parents to seriously consider moving her out of state. This evidence was centrally relevant to defendant's fabrication defense. However, the trial court invoked N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7 to bar the introduction into evidence of the actual content of those messages.

Defendant was convicted of first- and second-degree charges of sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child. An Appellate Division panel affirmed his conviction and sentence of twenty years imprisonment, holding that the trial court had properly applied N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7 to bar the admission of the content of the instant messages sent by and to C.A. We granted defendant's petition for certification, limited to the question of whether the content of the instant messages was properly excluded under N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7.

We now affirm. We hold that the content of the instant messages written by and to the victim in this case constitutes "sexual conduct" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7(f), and that content is therefore protected by N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7. Accordingly, we apply the two-pronged analysis set forth in State v. Budis, 125 N.J. 519, 532-34 (1991), and State v. Garron, 177 N.J. 147 (2003), cert. denied, 540 U.S. 1160, 124 S. Ct. 1169, 157 L. Ed. 2d 1204 (2004). That analysis requires that trial courts evaluate the relevancy and necessity of the disputed evidence and balance its probative value against its prejudicial effect. We conclude that in this case, the trial court conducted the careful inquiry required by N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7 and our case law. Given the admission of extensive evidence central to defendant's fabrication defense -- that C.A. accused defendant of sexual abuse in the setting of a confrontation with her parents and teachers shortly after the discovery of her explicit instant messages -- the actual content of the instant messages had little relevance to the issues that were presented at trial. Defendant had a full and fair opportunity to contest the State's charges.

We further hold that any probative value of the content of C.A.'s instant messages is substantially outweighed by its prejudice. The instant messages, unrelated to defendant and written more than two years after the sexual abuse at issue, would have distracted the jury from the issues before it. The confrontation of a victim, still a minor at the time of trial, with her sexually explicit communications made at the age of twelve would do more than invade the privacy of a single child. It could deter young victims of sexual exploitation, fearful of disclosure of their own online communications, from coming forward to report abuse. The test set forth in Budis and Garron was ...


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