2 N.J. teens labeled sex offenders for life after ‘horseplay’ incident
(NJ.COM) Call it bullying or call it horseplay. Either way, a state appellate court panel says roughhousing with a sexual connotation by a pair of 14-year-old Somerset County boys was a crime that requires them to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.
In a decision handed down Monday, the three-judge panel acknowledged the severity of its decision, but said it was bound to uphold the law.
“We are keenly aware that our decision may have profound lifelong ramifications for these two boys as well as others similarly situated,” Judge Jose Fuentes wrote.
One of the boys, whose case went to trial, said he had sat on the faces of a pair of 12-year-old schoolmates with his bare buttocks in November 2008 “cause I thought it was funny and I was trying to get my friends to laugh,” he told a family court judge.
But an act is considered criminal sexual contact if it is done for sexual gratification or to degrade or humiliate the victim, and punishable by lifetime registration — even for juveniles — under Megan’s Law, which requires a person convicted of a sex crime against a child to notify police of changes of address or employment.
The trial judge concluded the teenager intended to humiliate or degrade his victims and found him guilty of criminal sexual contact. The second teenager who was implicated pleaded guilty to criminal sexual contact, and received the same penalty.
The convictions were appealed, and the attorneys for the teenagers argued that their behavior amounted to horseplay, which other appellate court panels had exempted from Megan’s Law. David Fassett, an attorney for the boy who pleaded guilty, argued that the court should not take such a literal view of the law.
“I think the Appellate Division was simply offended by the conduct here and just couldn’t get past that issue,’’ he said.
The appeal did not challenge the application of Megan’s Law to the 14-year-old youths since courts have already ruled the law applies to offenders as young as 13, but on the ground that the offense was not severe enough to carry a lifelong stigma.
SOME VIEW RULING AS ‘HARSH’ PUNISHMENT
Ronald Chen, the state’s former public advocate who is vice dean at Rutgers-Newark Law School, said in an interview that the ruling highlights the “collateral” consequences of Megan’s Law.
He said that although the boys’ convictions for criminal sexual contact met the law’s requirements, “I don’t think lifelong registration is a proportionate response.’’
Chen said that is something the Legislature has to take up.
“It is a very harsh result and maybe the Legislature should take a look at it,’’ he said. “But for now, it is what it is.’’
The panel, which also included Judges Victor Ashrafi and William Nugent, noted its constraints under the law.
“Although we are not unsympathetic to the arguments criticizing the application of the lifelong registration requirements in (Megan’s Law) to 14-year-old offenders, we are bound to uphold such application because that outcome is mandated by the Legislature,’’ the court said in its ruling.
The Somerset County prosecutor, Geoffrey Soriano, and Robert Wilson, a lawyer for the teenager who was tried, both declined to comment.
For the boys, who are now 16, there is still a possibility of having their convictions overturned. The appellate panel sent their cases back to Superior Court, where one youth will have a hearing on whether he understood the ramifications of pleading guilty, and the other will get to argue that his trial attorney was ineffective.