N.J. court broadens sex-offender label
A 12-year-old boy, whose experiments on his half brother lacked sexual intent, must register under Megan's Law.
TRENTON - Some children who play doctor are criminal sex offenders in the eyes of the New Jersey Supreme Court.
The high court ruled yesterday that a 12-year-old boy who experimented with a douche bottle on his younger half brother must register as a sex offender under Megan's Law requirements, even though there was no overt sexual motivation for the crime.
The ruling overturned a lower court decision last year that said the boy - identified in court papers only as T.T. - would not be forced to register with police for life or have his home address and details of the offense publicized because there was no sexual intent to his crime.
"The concern was the breadth of that ruling," said Warren County Assistant Prosecutor Howard A. McGinn, who argued the case for the state. "You take that ruling and run with it and a lot of rapists would not be subject to Megan's Law because there are not necessarily sexual motivations in a lot of these crimes."
T.T. pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault for using a douche bottle on the 6-year-old and then on himself in January 2000. It was reported to authorities after the younger boy told his mother about the incident.
According to court records, neither child directly touched any part of the other's body and nothing similar had ever occurred before. When asked why he did it, T.T. responded, "I don't know," court records show.
T.T. was sentenced to 72 days in a youth facility and three years of probation. He was 13 when he registered as a sex offender.
The boy's attorney argued that Megan's Law requirements should only apply if the minor's conduct had an element of "sexual motivation." But the high court determined that once there is penetration, the act is considered sexual.
"By its very terms, Megan's Law extends beyond purely sexual offenses and sweeps in other offenders who target children," the court said in its unanimous opinion. "Thus, although the Legislature has used the term 'sex offender' as a catchall description for all those who commit Megan's Law offenses, the statute specifically denominates certain acts that have no sexual component as 'sex offenses' subject to its purview."
Though the ruling means Megan's Law still applies to T.T., who is now 19, he can avoid being a lifelong registered sex offender if he can prove he is not likely to reoffend.
The court also recognized that T.T. was less likely to reoffend and may qualify for the least onerous level of registration because of the "intra-familial nature of his offense."
Defense attorneys have long argued that increasing punishments for sex crimes, while appropriate for adults, have turned some cases of sexual experimentation by juveniles into crimes and that Megan's Law requirements can make lifetime registered sex offenders of confused youngsters.
"Maybe a criminal response is not always the appropriate response, maybe sometimes a therapeutic one is," said Tom Rosenthal, a spokesman for the state Public Defender's Office, which represented T.T.
However, Rosenthal called yesterday's ruling a "thoughtful refinement" because the court recognized the specifics of the case rather than using "a broad brush to criminal sexual development."
Jack Furlong, a defense attorney who represents sex offenders, said he was flabbergasted at how the case ever made it to court.
"This is a classic case of lawyers and judges breaking down at every critical stage of this boy's life," Furlong said. "He should not have been in the criminal system from day one, and he should not be in the Megan's Law registration now."