In November 2008, two Somerset County boys then 14 years old sat on the faces of a pair of 12-year-old schoolmates with their bare buttocks because, according to one of them, he thought it was funny and he was trying to get his friends to laugh. A crude and despicable act warranting some degree of punishment -- but hardly an act of sexual predation. The victims' parents pressed charges, and the perps were prosecuted. One boy pleaded guilty to criminal sexual contact, and the other was convicted of criminal sexual contact after a trial. Both were required to register as sex offenders even though it was horseplay rather than sexually-motivated. New Jersey's sex offender registration requirements are set forth HERE; an index of related statutes is available HERE.
Both boys immediately appealed. 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. So it appears they would have settled for mandatory registration until either the age of 18 or the age of 21.
On July 20th, 2011, the appeals court delivered its decision, which will be published HERE after it is approved. In their decision, 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. This implies the law provides only very limited discretion for judges. The New Jersey statute is outlined HERE.
The Blaze notes that the appellate judges sent both cases back to a lower court to consider whether one boy can withdraw his guilty plea and whether the other received effective counsel. Under the ruling, a Family Court judge must hold separate hearings that could result in either a new trial or a chance for the defendants to strike a new plea agreement with prosecutors.
Public reaction: An unscientific poll currently conducted by NJ.com indicates that out of 4,718 respondents so far, 76.66 percent think the judges made a big mistake. Some of the consequences of lifetime registration were set forth in this comment to the story:
I Am Not The Dark Lord, July 20th, 2011 at 10:11AM:
Aside from having to wear a shirt that says "I'm with stupid" an an arrow pointing at their heads for the rest of their lives? They'll also get: Lifetime ineligibility for things like soccer coach, PTA and school board officer, school employment. Neighborhood notification requirements, and a lifetime of dirty looks.
I am the member of an organization that held it's meetings at a local college. When they ran our membership list against the sex offender list, we had a hit. They demanded we expel that member or be kicked off campus (a violation of Megan's law). He graciously withdrew his membership before we had a chance to make a stand for him.
However, one person noted that the two boys will not face lifetime residency restrictions:
highflyer56, July 20th, 2011 at 5:02PM:
They will be a Tier 1 which requires only notification to the local police agency.
Some commenters suggest there may be more to this story, and that the perps may have records of other offenses. But we have to go on what's been made publicly available. Most commenters on The Blaze, a conservative site, also think the punishment is excessive. Some commenters also noted the influence of an increasingly corrupt and gross pop culture as encouraging more gross behavior on the part of teens.
Nobody is defending the conduct of the two boys. We all acknowledge that what they did is crude and disgusting. Some degree of punishment is warranted. But when these boys sat on the faces of their two victims, they never dreamed they were putting themselves on a sex offender registry FOR LIFE. When one of them chose to take full responsibility early and plead guilty, thus sparing the taxpayers the expense of a trial, he never dreamed he'd be putting himself on the sex offender registry FOR LIFE. And because the law applies to degrading or humiliating conduct as well, the prosecution was not required to prove sexual intent; as a result, the jury dutifully limited itself to judging the facts rather than also judging the law.
Putting these two boys on the sex offender registry FOR LIFE simply because of horseplay constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Ignorance of the law should sometimes constitute a valid defense.