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SJC Addresses when Juveniles with Prior Unadjudicated Cases are Exempt from Misdemeanor Prosecution

hammer-620011_1920As part of the substantial criminal justice reforms enacted last year, the Massachusetts legislature gave a break to certain “first offender” juvenile delinquents.  It did so by narrowing the definition of “delinquent child” found in G.L. c. 119 § 52, which effectively divests jurisdiction from the Juvenile Court for such “first offenders” because the Court has no jurisdiction except of “delinquent children.” In relevant part, the statute now defines “delinquent child” to be “a child between 12 and 18 years of age who commits any offense against a law of the commonwealth; provided, however, that such offense shall not include . . . a first offense of a misdemeanor for which the punishment is a fine, imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than 6 months or both such fine and imprisonment.” Previously, a “delinquent child” was defined as “a child between seven and 18 who violates any city ordinance or town by-law or who commits any offence against a law of the commonwealth.”   

As it turns out, the language of the statute raises questions of how big a break it is intended to provide.  Those questions were addressed by the Supreme Judicial Court in Wallace W., a Juvenile v. Commonwealth, decided on August 9.  Wallace was charged with operating a motor vehicle without a license, for which the punishment is only a fine.  Before arraignment he moved to dismiss the complaintasserting that the charge was a first offense of a qualifying misdemeanor and the juvenile court therefore lacked jurisdiction. 

Wallace was, however, not a stranger to the juvenile court system.  He had “several dismissed drug charges, a dismissed charge of operating a motor vehicle without authority, and an open case for breaking and entering in the nighttime with the intent to commit a felony.”  The judge at arraignment, seeing this history, did not agree that this was his “first offense” and denied the motion to dismiss.  The matter then came to the SJC on Wallace’s interlocutory petition. 

The SJC took the case to address the question of what counts as a prior offense that would make a child ineligible to be considered a delinquent child.  Wallace argued that because he had never been adjudicated delinquent in any of the prior cases, none could count as a “prior offense” and thus the new charge was a “first offenseThe Commonwealth argued that any prior charge that was supported by probable cause counted as a prior offense, and that because Wallace had several prior charges where probable cause had been found, the pending charge was not a “first offense” within the meaning of section 52.  

The Court found no basis in the statute or its history for the Commonwealth’s position, noting that the term “probable cause” nowhere appears in section 52, and the Court declined to read the statute so narrowly as to exclude from the definition of “delinquent child” any child for whom the Commonwealth had had probable cause as to a previous charge. 

The Court was equally dissatisfied with Wallace’s position, but chiefly because of the result it impliedthat the legislature had drafted a “catch-22” statute.  If only a prior adjudication of delinquency counted as a prior offense, a juvenile could, in theory (and some likely would), rack up dozens of charges each of which, under the statute, would have to be dismissed because in each new case, the prior charges, by operation of the statute, had not resulted in a delinquency finding.  This prospect the Court found to contradict its view of the legislature’s intent to give a first offender a break, but bring repeat offenders into the juvenile justice system, whose purpose is to correct and rehabilitate.  If multiple offenders were excused each time by operation of the statute, it would be defeating the very purpose of the statute, the Court reasoned. 

Relying on the ambiguity of the word “offense” (used in some instances in our criminal law to mean conviction, in others to mean criminal act) the Court found the statute ambiguous, and applied the “rule of lenity” to resolve the ambiguity in the juvenile’s favor (i.e. that “offense” means “adjudication of delinquency”). 

It is a little puzzling that the Court did not examine the multiple uses of the word “offense” in the sentence of section 52 at issue to see if the ambiguity could be resolved.  The statute defines a “delinquent child” as one “who commits any offense against a law of the Commonwealth.” It cannot be read here to mean “conviction” (or “adjudication of delinquency”) since the definition is designed to confer jurisdiction to make that very determination about the allegedly committed offense.  It goes on to say “such offense shall not include . . . . a first offense of . . . .” and in both instances, again, the term must to refer to criminal acts, not convictions, since the statute refers to the behavior that has yet to be adjudicated, solely for the purpose of  granting the court jurisdiction in the first place.  These uses of the term are not ambiguous, and on their face they do not mean “conviction” or its juvenile equivalent “adjudication of delinquency.”  But the Court’s analysis focuseon the use of the term in the phrase “prior offense,” even though that phrase does not appear in the statute. The case thus appears to involve construing a phrase that does not actually appear in the statute under examination, and the SJC construed “offense” in this phrase to mean something different than it means as used in the statute. 

While the SJC agreed with the juvenile that “offense” means “adjudication of delinquency,” in the phrase “prior offense,” it found a way to avoid the catch-22 problem that definition might create. Under the scheme fashioned by the SJC, a complaint for a qualifying misdemeanor can issue if, before arraignment, the Commonwealth proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile has committed a prior offense. What the Court seems to envision is a contested trial of a separate, previously-charged offense before the new offense can be arraigned.  However, the Court expressly states that “where the cases have been dismissed on the merits without an adjudication of delinquency, such cases cannot form the basis of a first offense.” It is unclear, then, whether that would allow the Commonwealth to proceed to prove that the juvenile committed a misdemeanor previously dismissed as a “first offense” because such a dismissal is not “on the merits.” In Wallace’s case, because he has an open felony case, the Court remanded and noted that the Commonwealth could either move to trial (in which the juvenile was entitled to a jury) on that case first, or prove as a preliminary matter in the misdemeanor case (to the judge), beyond a reasonable doubt, that Wallace committed the felony in order to proceed. 

The Court, in closing, recognized that its solution “may pose challenges to the administration of juvenile proceedings . . . going forward” and tossed the ball back to the legislature to clarify the intended meaning of “first offense.” As noted above, in my view this may be the rare case where the court has found ambiguity where the statute under scrutiny appears not to be ambiguous on its face. 

There will doubtless be many cases where, unlike Wallace’s, there is not another open case, but there is a prior misdemeanor that was dismissed pursuant to section 52. Logistically, the Commonwealth will have to keep track of witnesses and evidence for these dismissed cases if it anticipates a second round with the juvenile. Most repeat visitors to the court are probably going to find their way back without a long interlude, but those who manage to steer clear of the juvenile court for enough time may benefit from the Commonwealth’s inability to muster the requisite proof of their prior offense. 

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