In 1995, G.L., then seventeen, was adjudicated a delinquent based on conduct that would have been first-degree aggravated sexual assault on a twelve-year-old if he had been an adult. State v. G.L., ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2011). The defendant received a three-year suspended sentence and two years of probation, and he was also subject to Megan’s Law, which had been enacted in 1994. As a result, the defendant registered as a sex offender with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.
In 1998 the defendant was indicted for failing to re-register in accord with Megan’s Law because he had moved to Florida without registering there and without notifying the New Jersey prosecutor of his move. The defendant was extradited from Florida and pled guilty to failing to register. After the defendant apologized at sentencing and stated that he did not understand the registration requirements and promised to not let it happen again, the court ruled that it was only a technical violation and imposed, pursuant to a plea agreement, a 90-day jail sentence along with fines and penalties.
Two years later the defendant again violated Megan’s Law’s registration requirements and pled guilty to fourth-degree failure to register. He was sentenced to three years of probation. In 2001, the defendant violated his probation and incurred new charges. The trial court imposed a four-year custodial sentence for violation of probation, two counts of third-degree theft, and aggravated assault on a police officer.
The defendant then wrote to the prosecutor and asked that his 1995 plea be vacated because he did not understand the Megan’s Law ramifications when he agreed to the plea. The prosecutor investigated and concluded that it was questionable whether the defendant’s plea had been knowing and voluntary. As a result, the plea was vacated and the defendant was allowed to plead to fourth-degree child abuse, an offense that was not subject to Megan’s Law.
One year after entering that plea, the defendant moved for the vacation of his convictions for failure to register. Although the motion was not opposed, the trial court denied it because those convictions “were based upon an adjudication that was in full force and effect at the time that the failures took place and therefore were validly entered.”
On appeal, the defendant argued that his failure to register convictions should be vacated in order to remove the sex offender stigma from his name. He also asserted that he was denied due process when he pled to his original offense because he did not understand its Megan Law consequences. The State argued that the vacation of the initial conviction that subjected him to Megan’s Law was irrelevant to the defendant’s failure to register convictions and that the doctrine of fundamental fairness, which the defendant also tried to rely upon, was inapplicable. The Appellate Division agreed with the State and affirmed.
In doing so, the Appellate Division relied upon the reasoning of a factually analogous California decision, In re Watford, 186 Cal. App. 4th 684, 112 Cal. Rptr. 3d 522 (3d Dist.), review denied, 2010 Cal. LEXIS 120454 (2010). After analyzing Watford, as well as Lewis v. United States, 445 U.S. 55 (1980), the Appellate Division pointed out that the registration requirement that the defendant was subject to was a fundamental element of Megan’s Law. The Appellate Division discussed that requirement and the Legislature’s intent in creating it, and then held that “[n]othing in the statute suggests that the requirement of registration should be retroactively annulled because a plea to a crime subject to Megan’s [Law] is later withdrawn. Thus, as in Watford and Lewis, no legal basis for vacating defendant’s convictions for failure to register exists.” Moreover, the Appellate Division rejected the defendant’s fundamental fairness argument.
In conclusion, the court declared that “we find no statutory or equitable basis to require that defendant’s 1998 and 2000 convictions for failure to register be vacated. If relief is sought, defendant must obtain it by compliance with the provisions of N.J.S.A. 2C:7-2f.”