Few things can upend your life as quickly and profoundly as being accused of a sex crime. If the allegations turn into criminal charges, not only are you facing the very real prospect of incarceration, but you're also confronted with the threat of a tarnished reputation, strained personal relationships, child custody complications, professional setbacks, the revocation of professional licenses, and even the potential requirement to register as a sex offender for life. Even if the charges are ultimately dismissed or you are acquitted, the mere allegations can cause irreparable damage to your reputation, and you'll wonder if people will ever look at you the same.
Suffice it to say if you live in Essex County, NJ, and you've been charged with a sexual offense, you have every right to be concerned. The NJ Attorney General's Office mandates that local authorities notify prosecutors of all sexual assault claims within 24 hours, and law enforcement agencies in Essex County respond to sex offense allegations quickly. Unless you are proactive in hiring a good attorney, you could find yourself flat-footed while facing down some of the worst accusations imaginable.
Fortunately, you're not without options. If you find yourself ensnared in this predicament, being represented by the right New Jersey criminal defense attorney can greatly improve your prospects of beating the charges and saving your good name. At the Lento Law Firm, our Criminal Defense Team boasts a wealth of experience with sex crime charges in Essex County and across New Jersey. We know the New Jersey judicial system inside and out, and we know how to leverage our experience and the circumstances of your case to get you the most favorable outcome possible. To schedule a consultation, dial 888-535-3686 or complete our online form.
Classification of Sexual Offenses in New Jersey
New Jersey categorizes sex offenses and other crimes into five classifications, each based on the nature and severity of the offense:
- First-Degree Offense: Incurs 10 to 20 years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $200,000
- Second-Degree Offense: Incurs 5 to 10 years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $150,000
- Third-Degree Offense: Incurs 3 to 5 years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $15,000
- Fourth-Degree Offense: Incurs up to 18 months imprisonment and a maximum fine of $10,000
- Disorderly Persons Offense: Incurs up to 6 months imprisonment and a maximum fine of $1,000
These degrees are assigned to specific sex crimes based on their severity, with some flexibility depending on the circumstances. For instance, aggravated sexual assault typically falls under first-degree sex crimes in New Jersey, while lesser offenses like lewdness are generally classified as fourth-degree crimes or disorderly persons offenses. The degree of the offense can also be influenced by various factors, such as the age of the parties involved, the specifics of the act, and the relationship between the alleged offender and the victim, among other considerations.
Another variable in determining the severity of the charge is whether penetration occurred in the alleged sexual offense. New Jersey law defines sexual assault as an act of penetration in the form of "vaginal intercourse, cunnilingus, fellatio, or anal intercourse" by the insertion of a finger, hand, or object. Criminal sexual contact, on the other hand, occurs without penetration; the accused intentionally touches the victim's "intimate parts," either directly or through clothing, often for the purpose of humiliation, degradation, sexual arousal, or gratification.
Consent in the Context of Sex Crimes
The crimes of sexual assault (with penetration) and criminal sexual contact (no penetration) hinge on whether or not consent was given. If the alleged victim denies consent for the sexual act or is legally incapable of providing such consent, then the act constitutes a sex crime. Individuals with mental or physical disabilities, those incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, unconscious individuals, and anyone under the age of 16 are deemed legally incapable of giving consent. It also constitutes a sex crime for anyone in a parental, guardian, or supervisory role over a minor aged 16-18 to engage in sexual activity with them, even if the minor consents.
The one exception regarding consent under New Jersey law is that for individuals aged between 13 and 16, consensual sexual contact is not illegal, provided the sex partner is no more than four years older. For example, a consensual sexual relationship between a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old would not be considered a sex crime even though both parties are legally below the age of consent.
Types of Sexual Offenses in New Jersey
New Jersey law recognizes a broad spectrum of sexual offenses. Here's a brief overview of some of the more common sex crimes.
In New Jersey, sexual assault (aka, rape), in the absence of any aggravating elements, is deemed a second-degree crime. It refers to nonconsensual sexual penetration that is either forced or obtained through coercion without inflicting physical injury. The definition also extends to situations involving victims who are minors, mentally or physically incapacitated, or under the defendant's legal or supervisory care.
Aggravated Sexual Assault
Aggravated sexual assault is sexual assault involving one or more aggravating factors. These can include cases where the assault coincides with another criminal act, the victim is mentally or physically incapacitated, or the act involves force causing injury or the threat of force with a weapon.
Criminal Sexual Contact/Aggravated Criminal Sexual Contact
These offenses, classified as fourth and third-degree crimes, respectively, meet the conditions for sexual assault but involve unwanted sexual contact (touching "intimate parts") without penetration.
Indecent exposure is a fourth-degree offense involving the exhibition of one's private parts for sexual gratification when the offender reasonably expects to be seen by a child under age 13, other minors relative to the age of the defendant, or an individual with a mental disability that prevents them from comprehending the sexual nature of the act.
Lewdness, classified as a disorderly persons offense, occurs when the defendant reasonably expects their sexual behavior to be observed by "nonconsenting persons who would be offended or alarmed." When committed against victims younger than 13 (or other minors if the alleged perpetrator is at least four years older), lewdness escalates to indecent exposure.
Statutes of Limitations for Prosecuting Sex Crimes in Essex County
Sexual offenses in New Jersey can result in criminal charges, civil charges, or both. The statute of limitations refers to the period of time within which a sexual offense can be prosecuted or, in civil actions, the deadline for filing a lawsuit. This law promotes prompt legal action while also safeguarding the defendant's rights. New Jersey has adapted its statutes of limitations to accommodate different circumstances.
In civil cases where people are seeking money for damages, New Jersey's law gives individuals who experienced childhood sexual offenses until 37 years after turning 18 to start a legal claim. For adults, they have seven years from when they realize that a past sexual offense caused harm to them.
In New Jersey, there is effectively no statute of limitations for prosecuting sexual assault and aggravated sex crimes. This means that legal action can be taken at any time, even if the victim was a minor when the offense occurred. For lesser sex offenses, such as lewdness or criminal sexual contact, the time limit varies from one year for disorderly persons offenses to five years for more serious indictable (felony) offenses.
Attempts to Resolve Sex Crime Allegations "Privately"
In some situations, a person accused of a sexual offense may attempt to negotiate a "private" settlement with the accuser to avert criminal charges, effectively buying the alleged victim's silence. However, under the law, this tactic is futile in New Jersey. Legally, any private settlement involving the commission of a crime (including sex crimes) is considered null, void, and unenforceable. Therefore, even if the alleged victim signs an agreement, it doesn't prevent them from filing charges later, nor does it inhibit prosecution for sex crimes.
Mandatory Minimum Sentencing for Sexual Crimes
While so-called minor sex offenses carry lesser penalties than more severe ones, if you are a repeat offender, New Jersey law stipulates that you can face mandatory minimum sentencing, regardless of the actual crime committed. In legal parlance, even a second offense is an indicator of persistent unlawful behavior. Moreover, if you have a previous conviction for a sex crime in another state, New Jersey will count that as a prior offense, even if it's your first offense in this state.
In New Jersey, the mandatory minimum sentence for repeat sexual offenders is five years with no eligibility for parole during this time--and in some cases, the judge can make the sentence longer. Some circumstances may qualify for a reduced prison term under New Jersey's "No Early Release Act." However, these individuals must still serve at least 85% of their sentence before being considered for parole.
Compulsory Registration for Sex Offenders in New Jersey
In New Jersey, certain sexual offenses compel the defendant to register as a sex offender if they are convicted. This requirement stands regardless of the severity of the crime or whether the court decides on probation or alternate therapy over imprisonment. If you are convicted of a qualifying sex crime, you'll be required to register for life as a sex offender, regardless of the length of your sentence or whether you go to jail.
New Jersey law lists several sexual crimes that qualify for sex offender registration:
- Sexual assault
- Aggravated sexual assault
- Aggravated criminal sexual contact
- Criminal sexual contact involving a minor
- Endangering a child's welfare through sexual contact, pornography, or prostitution
- Luring, enticing, kidnapping, criminal restraint, and/or false imprisonment of a minor
Individuals on the sex offender registry are classified into three levels based on their predicted propensity to reoffend. Each level dictates the amount of information accessible to the public. Crimes at higher levels require more detailed information on the registry, including the offender's home address. However, even lower-level offenses necessitate the offender to notify local law enforcement about their presence in specific areas and update their address whenever they move, within Essex County or beyond. Regardless of the level or severity, if your conviction calls for sex offender registration, your details will be permanently recorded on the registry—both for minor offenses and regardless of any future criminal activity.
Why You Need an Experienced Attorney to Defend Against Sex Crimes in Essex County
If you're accused of a sexual offense in Essex County, New Jersey, your trial will be held at Essex County Superior Court, located at:
Essex County Historic Courthouse
470 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.
Newark, New Jersey 07102
Considering the serious implications of sex crime charges, it's essential to understand what's at stake, including:
- Your freedom
- Your career
- Your reputation
- Your professional license (if applicable)
- Your custody rights
- Your family relationships
- Potential sex offender registration obligations
Given these significant consequences, self-representation in court is strongly discouraged, even if you're entirely innocent. In Essex County, prosecutors vigorously pursue sex crime cases to the fullest extent of the law. Without competent legal representation, your likelihood of conviction and harsh sentencing substantially increases. The best way to safeguard your freedom and reputation against these negative outcomes is by hiring an experienced New Jersey criminal defense attorney to represent you. The Criminal Defense Team of the Lento Law Firm prides itself on a history of successful defenses against sex crime charges in Essex County and across New Jersey. We will listen to you, investigate and evaluate all the facts of your case, and work to develop a defense against the charges that will greatly improve your chances of success. To set up a consultation, call us at 888-535-3686 or reach out to us through our online form today.