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No Violation of Law for Sex Offender Volunteering for Church Youth Group; New Jersey Indictment Dismissed

by Lonnie Burton

On March 22, 2016, a New Jersey appellate court affirmed the dismissal of an indictment that charged a sex offender with violating a statute which forbids such offenders from participating in "youth serving organizations." The court of appeals held that the church for which the man was volunteering did not, as a matter of law, constitute a "youth serving organization" and denied the state's appeal of the case.

The state of New Jersey had charged the defendant, identified only as S.B., with violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:7-23(a), which makes it unlawful for a convicted sex offender to hold a paid or unpaid position in a "youth serving organization." S.B. was a congregant of the Eternal Life Christian Center, and had a prior sexual assault conviction. S.B. was a youth leader at the church, which included duties such as counselor, mentor, and chaperone for such events as outings, concerts, movie nights, and day camps. It was undisputed that S.B. had informed church leaders of his conviction.

The state used the statute, otherwise known as "Megan's Law," to charge S.B. with a felony under the theory that the church youth ministry was a "youth serving organization." On S.B.'s motion, the trial court dismissed the indictment, holding that the church was not in fact a "youth serving organization." The state thereafter appealed, seeking to reinstate the indictment.

The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, rejected the state's argument and affirmed. First, the court found that the absence of any mention of religious organizations in Megan's Law must be taken as intentional.

"The statutory definition lists various types of activities sought to be" prohibited, the court said, "but make no reference to churches or religious organizations." If the legislature intended to include churches in Megan's Law, the court said it would have and should have done so, and declined to "add language that the legislature omitted."

Second, the appellate court ruled that the church, as a matter of law, was not merely a "youth serving organization." While the youth ministry is part of the church's functions, it was not a separate organization. Because the church serves the entire population, which happens to include youths, it was improper to classify it as strictly a "youth serving organization."

In support of its decision, the court noted that other areas of Megan's Law, such as employer notification of a sex offense conviction, did include religious organizations. That fact, the court said, was proof that the legislature intentionally omitted churches from the section of Megan's Law under which S.B. was indicted.

Thus, the court found that the indictment was properly "dismissed because the State failed to present prima facie evidence establishing the elements of the crime charged." See: State of New Jersey v. S.B., Docket No. A-5063-14T3 (App. Ct. NJ), March 22, 2016.

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Related legal case

State of New Jersey v. S.B.