An Overview of Common Criminal Offenses in New Jersey

By Anthony Palumbo of Palumbo & Renaud - Cranford, NJ

Every year, hundreds of people are arrested in New Jersey and charged with assault crimes, sex offenses, crimes against children, and drug crimes. The details and circumstances of each one of these crimes vary, but the potential punishments are severe, and can include prison sentences, fines, and additional penalties. This article provides a general overview of these offenses, as well as possible defenses and some advice to follow if you've been accused of a crime.

Assault Crimes

Assault is the crime of causing someone to fear bodily harm, and may occur even in situations where nobody is actually hurt. Although many people are familiar with the phrase "assault and battery," they may not realize that these are separate offenses. While assault involves threats of physical harm, battery refers to situations where one person physically injures another person.

In New Jersey, assault crimes are broken down into three main categories depending on the circumstances and severity of the crime: simple assault, aggravated assault, and assault by automobiles or other vehicles. Related offenses include stalking, terroristic threats, and harassment crimes. The punishment for an assault crime depends on the circumstances. Most simple assaults are considered to be disorderly persons offenses and are subject to up to six months in prison and $1,000 in fines, but certain factors can increase or reduce the penalties. A conviction for an aggravated assault or an assault by vehicle will result in a second, third, or fourth degree offense, depending on how the crime was committed and how serious the injuries were, and can result in prison terms ranging from 18 months to 10 years, plus fines and other penalties.

Sex Offenses

Sex offenses include sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, criminal sexual contact, possession/distribution of child pornography, prostitution, and lewd behavior. Although many sex crimes involve the use of force, sex offenses can also arise from consensual sexual conduct, as with prostitution, polygamy, and statutory rape offenses.

Every sex crime is unique and can carry different penalties including prison sentences, commitment to sexual rehabilitation programs, community service, and monetary fines. Aggravating factors such as the age of a child victim, the use of force, or the familial relationship between an offender and his victim can result in more serious charges and more onerous sentences. Increased minimum penalties are also imposed for second and subsequent sex crime convictions.

Most sex crimes also require convicted offenders to comply with New Jersey's sex offender registration law, known as Megan's Law. This can be one of the most difficult parts of a sex crime conviction because registration can be very public and may continue to be required after prison or even permanently. Depending on the likelihood of recidivism, convicted sex offenders are classified under Megan's Law as either Tier 1 (low risk), Tier 2 (moderate risk), or Tier 3 (high risk), with the different levels requiring notification to different entities. Only law enforcement agencies are notified of sex offenders registered as Tier 1, while a Tier 2 classification results in additional notifications to schools, camps, and community organizations. For Tier 3 sex offenders, all of the above parties are notified and the information is also posted on the internet so that members of the public can view it. Sex offender registrations typically include a photo of the offender and a description of his or her crime(s), as well as information such as the offender's name, address, age, race, gender, height, weight, hair and eye color, distinguishing scars or tattoos, place of employment, and vehicle information.

Crimes Against Children

New Jersey criminal laws impose tough penalties on people who commit crimes against children, and just being accused of such crimes can be incredibly damaging to a person's personal and professional reputations, even if s/he is eventually found to be innocent. Crimes against children include offenses involving physical abuse, sexual molestation, child pornography, neglect, and other types of mistreatment. Depending on the severity and circumstances of the offense, a person who commits crime(s) against children can face lengthy prison sentences and steep fines. As with other sex offenses, moreover, people who are convicted of sex-related crimes against children have to register as sex offenders under Megan's Law, as described above.

Drug Crimes

Drug crimes include a variety of offenses, including driving while intoxicated, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of controlled dangerous substances with or without the intent to distribute, and maintaining or operating a drug production facility. As with other crimes, the penalties for drug offenses can include fines, mandatory treatment programs, and prison time, with the exact sentence depending on the circumstances of each case, the degree of the criminal offense, and the existence of aggravating factors such as committing drug offenses within a school zone or selling controlled substances to juveniles. Even minor offenses, however, can carry significant consequences. A person found with nothing more than marijuana seeds and stems, for example, can be sentenced to up to six months in prison and $1,000 in fines.

Elements of Crimes, Criminal Defenses, and Constitutional Considerations

The New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice defines specific offenses according to their requisite criminal elements, and the prosecutor must prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt in order to obtain a conviction. Criminal elements often contain mens rea or culpability requirements, which refer to the state of mind that the actor was in when s/he committed the offense. The different levels of culpability—namely, whether an offender acted purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently—can change the degree of a crime and significantly increase or reduce the punishment.

Disproving any element of a crime is a complete defense, but other defenses may also be available in some circumstances to mitigate or eliminate criminal liability. In the context of aggravated assault, for example, it is an affirmative defense that a fight was consensual or that the accused person was acting in self defense. These defenses are limited, however, and neither is effective if the accused caused bodily injury to a defenseless person. Other criminal defenses include, among other things, duress, insanity, and incompetence due to a child's age.

Criminal charges may also be thrown out if the offender's constitutional rights were violated. The U.S. and New Jersey constitutions, for example, generally prohibit warrantless searches, and key evidence against a criminal defendant may be deemed inadmissible if it was obtained during this sort of unlawful search. Other constitutional violations that are frequently raised in criminal cases involve the right to a speedy trial and the right to effective assistance of counsel. Miranda rights violations are also common, as in cases where the police fail to apprise a criminal suspect of his or her rights, or when the suspect requests to speak with a lawyer but the police begin interrogations before the lawyer arrives.

What to do if you're accused of a crime in New Jersey

Being accused of a crime can be a harrowing and confusing ordeal, especially if an accused person is innocent, and criminal charges can result in life-shattering jail sentences and steep fines. If you've been accused a crime, however, an experienced New Jersey criminal defense attorney can help you to make sense of your situation and identify the best ways to reduce your charges or avoid criminal liability altogether. For this reason, if you've been accused of a crime in New Jersey, the most important thing to remember is that you have the right to be represented by an attorney throughout the entire process.