N.J. Supreme Court Reconsiders 8 Year Sentence in Child Luring Case
In this case, the Court reviews whether the trial court misapplied the sentencing principles of the Code of Criminal Justice in imposing a sentence that includes a parole disqualified.
The Supreme Court determined after a lengthy review of the facts and procedure that the sentencing court included a parole disqualified after considering evidence that was not part of the official record of the case and hence a new sentencing hearing had to take place. Procedurally, Defendant waived his right to a jury trial and was convicted of second-degree luring, among other crimes, at the conclusion of a bench trial. The convictions were based on Internet conversations between defendant and a law enforcement officer impersonating a fourteen-year-old female named “Amanda.”
The State’s primary witness was Detective Christopher Hallet of the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office Computer Crimes Unit. In August 2008, Detective Hallet created a fictitious online profile of a fourteen-year-old female named Amanda and placed her profile in an Internet chat room. Shortly thereafter, on August 14, 2008, defendant directly contacted Amanda through instant messaging. Over the course of the next six weeks, defendant engaged in four additional online conversations with Amanda, discussing intimate and sexually explicit subjects. On several occasions, they discussed the possibility of engaging in sexual acts. During their final talk on September 24, 2008, defendant agreed to meet Amanda that day at “The Brickworks” in Mays Landing. After defendant pulled his truck into The Brickworks parking lot, law enforcement officers took him into custody. Following his arrest, defendant was interviewed by the police. He claimed that he did not intend to do anything with Amanda and only “wanted to explain to her that this isn’t right.”
Defendant testified and offered a diminished-capacity defense. Then twenty-nine years old, defendant stated that during his years as a professional firefighter and emergency medical technician (EMT), he experienced traumatic events that caused him to suffer a mental breakdown. He repeated that he did not intend to engage in sexual acts with Amanda. He denied using the Internet to search for “child pornographic materials,” and police did not find any such materials on his home computer or in his apartment. Defendant called three mental health experts to support his diminished-capacity defense. All three expressed the view that defendant suffered from post- traumatic stress and did not possess the requisite mental state to commit the crimes charged. The defense also called a number of character witnesses who testified to defendant’s trustworthiness and good reputation in the community. The State’s expert rejected the validity of the diminished-capacity defense, finding that defendant “engaged in a series of purposeful goal-directed behaviors” that led him to an intended sexual liaison with a minor.
In finding defendant guilty, the trial court rejected the defense of diminished capacity. The court accepted the testimony that events witnessed by defendant as an EMT and firefighter, such as the discovery of dead children, had “a traumatic effect” on him. Nonetheless, it did not believe that defendant’s psychological problems deprived him of the ability to engage in purposeful conduct. The court highlighted that defendant was able to navigate the Internet and into chat rooms, and that defendant had visited Internet chat rooms “to speak to females for ten years” before conversing online with Amanda.
The same judge who presided over the bench trial imposed defendant’s sentence. Defendant presented nine mitigating factors and the State presented two aggravating factors. The court found mitigating factor seven only — no history of prior delinquency or criminal activity. The Court addressed two other proposed mitigating factors that it rejected, but it did not give any reasons for disregarding the remaining factors advanced by defendant. The Court found both aggravating factors proposed by the State, aggravating factor three — risk that defendant will commit another offense, and nine — need for deterrence.
Defendant’s most serious offense, attempted luring, is a second-degree crime with a range of imprisonment between five and ten years. The trial court imposed an aggregate custodial term of eight years with a four-year parole disqualifier. In addition, the court ordered defendant placed on parole supervision for life, that he register as a sex offender, that he forfeit his public employment as a firefighter, that he not possess a device with Internet capability unless required for employment, and that he submit to random searches of his computer or other Internet- capable device.
The Appellate Division affirmed defendant’s conviction and sentence in an unpublished opinion. This Court granted defendant’s petition for certification limited to the issue of whether he was properly sentenced to a discretionary parole disqualifier. 216 N.J. 361 (2013).
HELD: The sentencing proceeding in this case was flawed for several reasons, including the trial court’s finding of a critical aggravating factor that was not based on credible evidence in the record. The trial court also failed to articulate clearly how the aggravating and mitigating factors were balanced to arrive at the sentence. The sentencing court is required to follow the guidelines outline herein at the time of any sentencing hearing when it weighs the aggravating and mitigating factors.
1. In determining the appropriate sentence to impose within the statutory range, judges first must identify any relevant aggravating and mitigating factors. The finding of any factor must be supported by competent, credible evidence in the record. Whether a sentence should gravitate toward the upper or lower end of the range depends on a balancing of the relevant factors. To facilitate meaningful appellate review, trial judges must explain how they arrived at a particular sentence. (pp. 15-19)
2. The sentencing court, when clearly convinced that the aggravating factors substantially outweigh the mitigating factors, may sentence a defendant to a minimum term not to exceed one-half of the term allowed by the statute. In doing so, however, the court must specifically place on the record the aggravating factors which justify the imposition of a minimum term. (pp. 19-20)
3. Here, sentencing jurisprudence requires that the Court vacate defendant’s sentence. First, the weight given by the trial court to aggravating factor three, the risk that defendant will commit another offense, was based not on credible evidence in the record, but apparently on the unfounded assumption that defendant had pursued minors through the Internet on previous occasions. The trial court did not give a reasoned explanation for its conclusion that this first- time offender presented a risk to commit another offense. (pp. 20-22)
4. The trial court also did not sufficiently explain its reason for placing particular emphasis on aggravating factor nine—the need for both specific and general deterrence. Although the Court does not suggest that aggravating factor nine cannot be credited here, the issue is how much weight should be given to that factor. In this case, the court did not adequately explain its decision to give that factor “particular emphasis.” (pp. 22-23)
5. Defendant presented nine mitigating factors, and yet the court addressed only three. Evidence in the record — if credited by the trial court — might have supported a finding of some of the other factors. The court was obliged to give reasons for rejecting mitigating factors brought to its attention or for accepting them if sufficiently grounded in the evidence. In addition, the trial court did not engage in a qualitative analysis of the sentencing factors it found, which was essential before imposing a period of parole disqualification. Further, on the record before the Court, there is insufficient support for the trial court’s conclusion that, clearly and convincingly, the aggravating factors substantially outweighed the mitigating factors. (pp. 23-26)