A Crime Abroad—State Territorial Jurisdiction

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

The Role and Importance of Jurisdiction

State v. Sumulikoski, decided by the Supreme Court of New Jersey on March 18th is a criminal case that hinged on jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is essential to rule of law and due process both at the federal and state level. After all it would be crazy if California could prosecute a bank robber who was a citizen of New York and committed the robbery in Albany. A system without jurisdiction would lead to chaos and injustice. However, sometimes in cases that hinge on jurisdiction individual justice must be sacrificed to uphold the law and integrity of the legal system as a whole. This is one of those cases.

New Jersey Sex Crimes Committed Overseas

It involved two employees of Paramus Catholic High School, 28 year old substitute teacher/coach Michael Sumulikoski and his codefendant, 31 year old vice president of school operations Artur Sopel. The two men signed up to be chaperones for a school trip to Europe. After the trip an investigation confirmed while in Germany the men engaged in sexual intercourse and other activities with three underage girls. It should be noted that this is the conclusion of a thorough investigation and was enough to convince a Grand Jury to indict but everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.  A Grand Jury charged Sumulikoski with  three counts of second-degree sexual assault and three counts of second-degree endangering the welfare of a child. Sopel was charged with six counts of second-degree sexual assault and two counts of second-degree endangering the welfare of a child.  Sopel was also charged with additional counts of sexual assault from a 2010 incident and with witness tampering because he instructed the girls about what to say to authorities.

The defendants moved to dismiss the charges on the basis that the State lacked territorial jurisdiction because the crime took place in Germany. N.J.S.A. 2C:1-3 (a) (1) states that New Jersey jurisdiction is permitted when “either the conduct which is an element of the offense or the result which is such an element occurs within this State.” Both the trial court and the Appellate Division (in an unpublished opinion) held that New Jersey had jurisdiction because the supervisory position the defendants had over the students was an element of the offenses.

Conditions of State Jurisdiction (New Jersey)

N.J.S.A. 2C:1-3 outlines the following situations that allow for state jurisdiction. Here is an abridged version:

  • Element of offense occurs inside N.J.
  • Offense is attempted inside N.J.
  • Conspiracy + overt act in furtherance to commit offense occurs inside N.J.

*It should be noted that nothing in the record revealed a conspiracy to commit sexual crimes abroad while still in N.J.

  • Complicity occurs inside N.J.
  • Omission to perform a legal duty occurs inside N.J.
  • Conduct bears a “reasonable relation to a legitimate interest of this state and the actor knows or should know that his conduct is likely to affect that interest.”

Jurisdiction and the Rule of Lenity

Essentially what is important here is that the status of the defendants as chaperones is not enough to grant jurisdiction because the actual crime was still committed outside the State in Germany. The court cited a bigamy case as an analogy to explain the difference between status and the element of an offense. In State v. Ishaque a man was married in New Jersey and then traveled to Pakistan and married a second woman.  Even though his status as a married man in New Jersey was essential to his marriage in Pakistan constituting bigamy, it was not enough to grant New Jersey jurisdiction because the actual crime of bigamy still occurred in Pakistan.  Any ambiguity in a statute is applied in favor of the defendant and this is called the rule of lenity. The key evidence of the case for the purposed of the eventual dismissal was the fact that the chaperone did not have any contact or plans in advance with regard to the students.  In other words, because they were last minute substitutes and there was no evidence of planning, prior relationship, or steps towards these sexual encounters the Court found no contacts with the state of New Jersey for the ‘conduct’ or ‘conspiracy’.

The Appellate Division was reversed and the indictment of relevant counts were dismissed. Again the outcome of this case as it pertains to individual justice in the case of the three victims and the two defendants may seem unfortunate. But it is also important to consider what would happen to the legal system if any jurisdiction could bring charges for any crime committed anywhere.

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