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New Jersey Judge Denied Sex Offender a Fair Hearing, Appellate Court Finds

New Jersey Judge Denied Sex Offender a Fair Hearing, Appellate Court Finds

Questioning a lower court’s ability to conduct a fair hearing, a New Jersey appellate court ordered a new hearing before a different judge for a sex offender confined under the state’s Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA).

On March 20, 2007, a sex offender identified as S.B.M. was civilly committed under the SVPA. During a December 20, 2007 hearing to determine if his confinement should be continued, the judge interrupted testimony because she wanted to know if there was a reason why S.B.M. was wearing dark glasses. A witness told her that S.B.M. had a history of eye surgery. She asked if dark glasses had been prescribed, but the witness did not know.

“The judge ordered S.B.M. to ‘take them off.’ S.B.M. responded, ‘I have a medical…’ The judge cut him off and ordered him to take them off several times.” The judge was subsequently informed that S.B.M.’s medical file indicated “tinted lenses were medically necessary.” She did not order him to remove the glasses again but said the “use of black glasses in courtrooms are universally considered to be threatening gestures.”

The judge then ordered S.B.M.’s continued civil confinement, stating she was “satisfied that there is no established medical cause of reason for the black glasses” that S.B.M. “voluntarily doffed.”

On appeal, the Appellate Division was “very concerned by the judge’s demeanor during the hearing. She went off on a tangent regarding S.B.M.’s wearing dark glasses. She interrupted relevant testimony to pursue this inquiry. The judge demanded that S.B.M. remove the glasses repeatedly and disbelieved him without any basis, when he asserted that they were medically approved and that he had authorization to use them.”

The appellate court found the judge’s conduct “wearisome” because she was the fact finder and the issue of dark glasses was “trivial” and irrelevant. “But, it showed the judge’s unwillingness to believe S.B.M., even when his statement ... was corroborated. It also calls into question the judge’s ability to conduct a fair hearing,” wrote the court.

The appellate court thus ordered a new hearing before a different judge, and instructed that “in the future, the judge should avoid confrontation over tangential matters.” See: In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of S.B.M., Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division, Docket No. A-2384-07T2 (SVP-308-03), Sept. 3, 2008 (unpublished).

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Related legal case

In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of S.B.M.