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State ex rel. T.C.

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

April 4, 2018


          Submitted January 24, 2018

         On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Complaint No. FJ-15-0859-16.

          Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Frank M. Gennaro, Designated Counsel, on the brief).

          Joseph D. Coronato, Ocean County Prosecutor, attorney for respondent (Samuel Marzarella, Chief Appellate Attorney; of counsel and on the briefs; Nicholas D. Norcia, Assistant Prosecutor, and Anthony V. Pierro, Chief of Special Litigation, on the briefs).

          Before Judges Koblitz, Manahan and Suter.


          KOBLITZ, J.A.D.

         To preserve its constitutionality, we interpret the Juvenile Justice Code (Code), N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-20 to -92, to prevent incarceration of developmentally disabled juveniles in county detention facilities because not all counties have access to a certified short-term incarceration program. T.C., who was seventeen at the time of the offense, acknowledged his responsibility for actions that would constitute second-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1(a)(1), if committed by an adult. He admitted participating with two other juveniles in the unarmed forcible theft of marijuana from the backpack of a fourth juvenile.

          The Juvenile Pre-dispositional Report stated T.C. was originally classified as "[m]ultiply disabled and on the [a]utistic spectrum" beginning "around the age of [four]." A 2006 psychiatric evaluation stated T.C. would "continue to have a significant amount of autistic qualities and manifested symptoms in the Pervasive Developmental Disorder spectrum." T.C. moved through school with the designation of developmentally disabled, although at the time of sentencing, T.C. attended school regularly, worked a part-time job, and was not taking any prescribed medications. T.C.'s developmental disability was disputed by the State, but tacitly accepted by the judge without a specific ruling.[2]

          In exchange for the guilty plea, the State agreed to recommend a two-year probationary term, conditioned on sixty days confinement in the Ocean County Juvenile Detention Center (OCJDC). T.C. reserved the right to argue instead for sixty days of electronic monitoring rather than custody in the detention facility, and to make the legal argument at the time of disposition that he should not receive a custodial sentence because of his developmental disability. Accepting that T.C. was developmentally disabled, the court nonetheless imposed a two-year probationary term conditioned on thirty days incarceration in the OCJDC, followed by thirty days of electronic monitoring.

         Because T.C. has completed the custodial term, the State argues this appeal is moot. An issue is "moot when our decision sought in a matter, when rendered, can have no practical effect on the existing controversy." Redd v. Bowman, 223 N.J. 87, 104 (2015) (quoting Deutsche Bank Nat'l Tr. Co. v. Mitchell, 422 N.J.Super. 214, 221-22 (App. Div. 2011)). A reviewing court may decide a moot issue with respect to a juvenile appellant, however, if the issue is of public importance and is likely to recur. See State In re. C.V., 201 N.J. 281, 286 (2010) (electing to resolve moot issue of whether juvenile was entitled to receive credit for time served even though juvenile's sentence was complete); see also Joye v. Hunterdon Cent. Reg'l High Sch. Bd. of Educ., 176 N.J. 568, 583 (2003) (electing to resolve issue of whether a school's random drug and alcohol testing program passed muster under the New Jersey Constitution even though plaintiff had since graduated from the school).

         T.C. remains on probation, so the possibility of future incarceration for this juvenile offense exists. As significantly, incarceration of developmentally disabled juveniles is of public concern. We decide the underlying issue because it "is one of substantial importance, likely to reoccur but capable of evading review." Zirger v. Gen. Accident Ins. Co., 144 N.J. 327, 330 (1996).

         During the dispositional hearing, T.C.'s counsel argued the law did not permit a developmentally disabled juvenile such as T.C. to serve a custodial sentence in either a State or county juvenile correctional facility. The State argued the statute prohibited confinement of a developmentally disabled juvenile in a State facility, but not a certified county short-term detention program. Although the judge agreed with defense counsel that "incarceration is incarceration, " the judge interpreted the statute to permit the short-term incarceration of developmentally disabled juveniles in an approved county detention program.

          The Code governs juvenile delinquency matters. C.V., 201 N.J. at 294. It "empowers Family Part courts handling juvenile cases to enter dispositions that comport with the Code's rehabilitative goals." Id. at 295. "Once the court adjudicates a juvenile to be delinquent, the Code permits the court to order incarceration or, in lieu of incarceration, any of twenty enumerated dispositions under N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-43(b)." Ibid. When making a disposition, "Family Part judges must determine the most appropriate course of action in respect of the individual to 'accomplish both rehabilitation and preservation of the ...

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