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State v. S.B.

Supreme Court of New Jersey

July 20, 2017

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
S.B., Defendant-Respondent.

          Argued April 25, 2017

         On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 445 N.J.Super. 49 (App. Div. 2016).

          Claudia Joy Demitro, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for appellant (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General of New Jersey, attorney; Claudia Joy Demitro, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Alison S. Perrone argued the cause for respondent (Alison S. Perrone, on the brief).

          TEVIPONE, J., writing for the Court.

         In this appeal, the Court determines whether a youth ministry associated with a church or religious organization is exempt from the definition of a "youth serving organization" under N.J.S.A. 2C:7-22, a provision of Megan's Law.

         Defendant S.B. was a congregant of the Eternal Life Christian Center (ELCC), a registered non-profit and religious institution. Defendant was also subject to Megan's Law because of two sexual assault convictions in 1991. To comply with the Megan's Law reporting requirements, defendant notified the ELCC pastors and elders of his convictions. Defendant participated in the church's No Limits Youth Ministry (NLYM), the stated goal of which is "to prepare students to be effective at home, junior high, senior high, and college."

         Based on defendant's participation in the NLYM, the grand jury indicted him for third-degree prohibited participation in a "youth serving organization, " in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:7-23. Defendant moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the NLYM was not a youth serving organization under Megan's Law.

         The trial court granted defendant's motion, reasoning that the statute was vague with respect to how religious institutions fit within the definition of youth serving organization. The court distinguished the case from State v. J.B.W., 434 N.J.Super. 550 (App. Div. 2014), which found a violation of Megan's Law where a defendant participated in a school marching band's pit crew because it was separate from the school, making the statute's school exemption inapplicable.

         The State appealed; the Appellate Division affirmed the indictment's dismissal. 445 N.J.Super. 49, 58-59 (2016). The panel rejected the State's argument that the definition of youth serving organization encompassed the NLYM. LI at 55. It reasoned that because the definition does not specifically address religious organizations, the Legislature did not intend to include religious organizations in the definition of youth serving organization. Ibid.

         The Court granted the State's petition for certification. 227 NI 124 (2016).

         HELD: A plain-language reading of N.J.S.A. 2C:7-22 does not exempt a youth ministry associated with a church or other religious organization from the definition of "youth serving organization."

         1. N.J.S.A. 2C:7-23(a) provides, in relevant part, that "it shall be unlawful for an excluded sex offender to hold a position or otherwise participate, in a paid or unpaid capacity, in a youth serving organization." N.J.S.A. 2C:7-22 defines "youth serving organization" as "a sports team, league, athletic association or any other corporation, association or organization, excluding public and nonpublic schools, which provides recreational, educational, cultural, social, charitable or other activities or services to persons under 18 years of age." (p. 7)

         2. The text of N.J.S.A. 2C:7-22 is clear on its face: "[A]ny other corporation, association, or organization" that provides activities or services to minors is a youth serving organization. Churches clearly fall within the blueprint of the statute and its "any other" language. The statute's only exemption is "public and nonpublic schools." N.J.S.A. 2C:7-22. The Legislature decidedly and explicitly exempted schools. It chose not to categorically exempt any other type of organization, including religious organizations, (pp. 7-8)

         3. The Legislature's primary objective in enacting Megan's Law was to create a registration system that provided law enforcement officials "with additional information critical to preventing and promptly resolving" incidents of child sexual abuse. N.J.S.A. 2C:7-1. Any ambiguity would have been interpreted in a manner favoring the protection of children to effectuate the statute's legislative intent, (pp. 8-9)

         4. The Court rejects defendant's contention that the Appellate Division's decision in J.B.W. compels the conclusion that the NLYM is not a youth serving organization. Whereas organizations affiliated with schools must be shown to be sufficiently separate from those schools to fall outside the statute's school exclusion, that is not so with organizations affiliated with religious institutions. The Legislature specifically excluded "public and non-public schools" from the definition of youth serving organization but did not provide a similar exclusion for religious or any other type of organization, (pp. 9-12)

         5. The Court briefly comments on the Appellate Division's speculation concerning N.J.S.A. 2C:7-22 and the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution. The constitutional question was neither raised by the parties nor necessary to the analysis. This matter is purely an issue of statutory interpretation and legislative intent, (pp. 12-13)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, the indictment is REINSTATED, and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VTNA, and SOLOMON join ...


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