What to Know If You Are Under Investigation for a Sex Crime in NJ
The mere allegation that you committed a sex crime could have a devastating effect on your reputation. But what about a conviction? In New Jersey, sex offenses like aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, criminal sexual contact, and possession of child pornography are all classified as felonies, with the most serious of these carrying a possible penalty of a life sentence in prison. Whether you were mistakenly identified as the person responsible for a sex offense, or you were falsely accused of a sex offense during a domestic dispute, the police are likely to investigate you. Just one wrong decision during this investigation, and you could be facing a lifetime of consequences, including significant time in prison, a sex crime conviction on your permanent record, and the need to register as a convicted sex offender under Megan’s Law. That’s why it is critical for you to have an experienced NJ criminal defense attorney on your side and guiding you throughout the earliest stages of the legal process. Here, our seasoned New Jersey sex crimes defense lawyers discuss the top things you should know if you are under investigation for a sex crime in New Jersey. For personalized guidance and assistance from the moment you have been accused of sexual assault or another sex offense, contact our office in Jersey City, NJ at (201) 793-8018. Our legal team offers around-the-clock service and free consultations.
What the Police will do in a New Jersey Sex Crime Case: Investigate & Interview the Suspect
All sex offense charges carry severe penalties, and it is likely that you will be investigated by law enforcement before any of these charges are formally brought against you. Some of the most common allegations that prompt investigations are Sexual Assault, Criminal and Aggravated Criminal Sexual Contact, Endangering the Welfare of a Child. Luring & Enticing, Lewdness, Prostitution & Solicitation, Promoting Prostitution, Internet Sex Crimes, and Failure to Register as a Sex Offender.
The legal process may begin with you being identified as a suspect in a sex offense case. This is likely to prompt local law enforcement to investigate the allegations and determine whether probable cause exists to bring criminal charges and make an arrest. Also, you might not be informed that you are a suspect in the case. That’s because police often believe they can get incriminating information, and maybe even a confession, when the person being questioned doesn’t realize that they have already been accused of a crime.
If there is not enough evidence to charge and arrest you, police are likely to call you on the phone and arrange an interview. They may use broad language when initially contacting you so that you don’t become alarmed and do the one thing they fear most: talk to a lawyer first. The police may say something like, “We’re conducting an investigation, and we were hoping you could help us out by answering a few questions.” If investigating officers do inform you that you have been accused of sexual assault or some other felony sex offense, they may try to convince you that their motivation is to help you: “We just want to hear your side and find out what really happened.” Don’t believe them. If the police are investigating you for a sex crime, that means they are on the alleged victim’s side and they are simply trying to obtain enough evidence to charge you.
Police might also be looking to help the prosecutor meet their burden of proof and secure a conviction at trial by filling holes in the case. At a minimum, the officers who question you will probably try to get you to confirm certain facts that the alleged victim has already told them, such as the date and time of your encounter, whether there was any sexual activity (even if it was consensual), and whether alcohol or drugs were involved. Worse yet, police deception in the interrogation room is actually allowed by courts in New Jersey. This means that investigating officers can lie to you about exactly what kind of evidence, and how much evidence, they have in the case. (E.g., DNA evidence found in the victim or surveillance footage showing the suspect and the victim together.) The idea is that police can use just about any means to get a suspect to confess.
Accused of a Sex Crime in NJ? Talk to an Attorney First
Do not make the mistake of talking to the police without an attorney present! Your best chance of avoiding criminal charges is to decline the police’s invitation to speak with them. It may feel a bit strange for an innocent person to refuse to speak with law enforcement, but that is usually the only correct decision in these situations. Your protestations of innocence are likely to fall on deaf ears at the police station. Once the police have identified you as a suspect in a felony sex crime case, you should assume that they are only interested in obtaining evidence of your “guilt,” not your innocence. And once they have probable cause to charge you with a sex offense, there is a good chance that they will come to your home or workplace and arrest you. At that point, the damage to your personal reputation could be irreversible.
The consequences of failing to talk to an attorney before you voluntarily speak to the police in a sex crime investigation can be destructive for you and your family. Moreover, you should keep in mind that you aren’t actually refusing to talk to the police at all; you are merely taking advantage of your legal right to speak with an attorney before speaking with the police. So, do not let the police pressure you into talking to them without your attorney present. If they tell you that “innocent people don’t need lawyers,” tell them that you’ll be happy to discuss that with your lawyer. The reality is that an experienced criminal defense lawyer who has represented clients in NJ sexual offense cases will know exactly how to protect your rights during this phase of the sex crime investigation.
NJ Sex Crime Investigations: Officers will Interview the Victim
In almost all sex crime cases, the alleged victim will need to come forward at some point to speak with authorities and report the crime before the police take a closer look at your involvement. That’s because the nature of most sex offenses means that they are “he said, she said” situations where there are no other witnesses to the alleged incident. Police will have to make an early determination about whether the victim’s allegations are enough to trigger an investigation, with the results of that investigation then dictating whether you should be criminally charged.
You should be aware that NJ detectives and police officers who investigate sex crimes often give a great deal of weight to the alleged victim’s story, which is why you need to be very careful about how you proceed once you realize that an accusation could be forthcoming. Whether the alleged victim has already spoken to the police, or they are thinking about going to the police with allegations, it is imperative that you do not attempt to contact them to influence what they might tell investigators. Similarly, do not try to contact their friends, relatives, or co-workers in a misguided effort to pressure the victim and get them to avoid accusing you of a sexual offense. The truth is that your attempts at communication could inadvertently provide proof of certain details that investigators are looking to confirm (e.g., your whereabouts on the night when the sex crime occurred), and they could easily be interpreted by police as evidence of your guilt. Moreover, if your communications are in writing (e.g., text, email, or online social media post), they could be used as evidence against you later at trial.
Even a phone call to the alleged victim probably won’t be in your best interests: since New Jersey wiretap laws do not prevent a third party from listening in on a phone conversation as long as one of the parties has consented, the police could be recording the call. Your attempts to explain things on a phone call with the victim may only make your legal situation that much worse by providing authorities with evidence that can be used to charge you and later convict you of the sex crime.
Grand Jury Indictments for Sex Crime Charges in New Jersey
After the police have interviewed both you and the alleged victim, it’s possible that they may decline to arrest you. However, this does not mean that you will avoid criminal charges in the case! Even if the police opt not to sign the criminal complaint, the county prosecutor’s office might still believe that they have enough evidence to secure a grand jury indictment.
Grand juries are convened at the Superior Court located in the county where the sexual offense allegedly occurred. Typically, an individual is arrested and formally charged with a felony, and the county prosecutor must first get an indictment before the case can proceed to trial. When a case goes directly to the grand jury without an arrest warrant being issued, it is known as a “direct presentment.” The grand jury, which is made up of 23 citizens selected for jury duty, is allowed to see the results of the police investigation and then make a determination about whether the evidence presented is sufficient to indict the suspect. Since grand jury proceedings are held in secret, you will not be made aware of them, nor will you necessarily be afforded the opportunity to testify in your defense.
If a majority of the grand jury – 12 or more people – returns a “true bill of indictment,” this means that you have been indicted on the felony sex crime charges. Your case will then move forward in the criminal justice system and be scheduled for trial at the Superior Court level. If the grand jury does not issue an indictment, however, it returns what is known as a “no bill.” The result of a no bill is that the case is dismissed, and the prosecution will be unable to formally charge you with the proposed sex crime(s).