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Case Law Corner with Burcu Hensley: Vol. 2

Updated: Oct 6


Happy Friday, Defenders! Welcome back to Case Law Corner, where we take a monthly dive into new and significant case law affecting youth and the practice of juvenile defense. Last month we asked you to help us compile a list of the most significant US Supreme Court decisions – are you ready to see what you came up with? Well, here they are!


Top US Supreme Court Decisions in Juvenile Delinquency


Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966)

The process of transfer to adult court is protected by due process rights.


In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967)

Children charged with delinquency have the constitutional right to due process protections.


In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970)

The burden of proof in delinquency proceedings is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”


Breed v. Jones, 421 U.S. 519 (1975)

Trial in adult court after adjudication in juvenile court for the same charge(s) constitutes double jeopardy.


Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)

The death penalty, as applied to youth under 18, is cruel and unusual punishment, and is unconstitutional.


Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010)

Life imprisonment without parole, as applied to youth under 18 convicted of a non-homicidal offense, is cruel and unusual punishment and is unconstitutional.


J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011)

A youth’s age must be considered when deciding whether the juvenile is considered to be in custody.


Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012)

Mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, as applied to youth under 18, is cruel and unusual punishment, and is unconstitutional.


Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 734 (2016)

Miller’s ban on mandatory life without parole for youth applies retroactively.


Jones v. Mississippi, 593 U.S. ___ (2021)

A finding of permanent incorrigibility is not required to impose a sentence of life without the possibility of parole on a youth under the age of 18.


Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966) The process of transfer to adult court is protected by due process rights.

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Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966)

The process of transfer to adult court is protected by due process rights.

Facts: Morris A. Kent Jr., a 16-year-old boy, was detained and interrogated by the police in connection with several incidents involving robbery and rape. After Kent admitted some involvement, the juvenile court waived its jurisdiction. This allowed Kent to be tried as an adult. Kent was indicted in district court. Kent moved to dismiss the indictment because the juvenile court did not conduct a "full investigation" before waiving jurisdiction, as required by the Juvenile Court Act. A jury found Kent guilty and sentenced him to serve 30-90 years in prison. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed, although it noted that the juvenile court judge provided no reason for the waiver. Question: Was the juvenile court's waiver of jurisdiction valid? Conclusion: No. In a 5-4 decision, Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the majority. The Supreme Court determined there was not a sufficient investigation prior to the juvenile court waiver of jurisdiction. Kent did not receive a hearing, access to counsel, or access to his record prior to the waiver. The Court remanded the case to the district court to determine whether the waiver was proper. Because Kent was 21 years old at the time of this decision, the juvenile court no longer had jurisdiction if the waiver was proper. In light of this, the Court ordered that the conviction be vacated if the waiver was improper and sustained if proper. Summary from Oyez.org – see more here, including a link to the oral argument and the case.


In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967)

Children charged with delinquency have the constitutional right to due process protections.


Facts: Gerald Francis Gault, fifteen years old, was taken into custody for allegedly making an obscene phone call. Gault had previously been placed on probation. The police did not leave notice with Gault's parents, who were at work, when the youth was arrested. After proceedings before a juvenile court judge, Gault was committed to the State Industrial School until he reached the age of 21.

Question: Were the procedures used to commit Gault constitutionally legitimate under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Conclusion: No. The proceedings of the Juvenile Court failed to comply with the Constitution. The Court held that the proceedings for juveniles had to comply with the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment. These requirements included adequate notice of charges, notification of both the parents and the child of the juvenile's right to counsel, opportunity for confrontation and cross-examination at the hearings, and adequate safeguards against self-incrimination. The Court found that the procedures used in Gault's case met none of these requirements.

Summary from Oyez.org – see more here, including a link to the oral argument and the case.


In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970)

The burden of proof in delinquency proceedings is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”


Facts: At age twelve, Samuel Winship was arrested and charged as a juvenile delinquent for breaking into a woman's locker and stealing $112 from her pocketbook. The charge also alleged that had Winship's act been done by an adult, it would constitute larceny. Relying on Section 744(b) of the New York Family Court Act, which provided that determinations of juvenile's guilt be based on a preponderance of the evidence, a Family Court found Winship guilty, despite acknowledging that the evidence did not establish his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Winship's appeal of the court's use of the lower "preponderance of the evidence" burden of proof, was rejected in both the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court and in the New York Court of Appeals before the Supreme Court granted certiorari. Question: Does the requirement that juvenile convictions rest on "preponderance of the evidence" burden of proof, as opposed to that stricter "beyond a reasonable doubt" threshold, violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause? Conclusion: Yes. In a 5-to-3 decision, the Court found that when establishing guilt of criminal charges, the strict "reasonable-doubt" standard must be applied to both adults and juveniles alike. The Court noted that by establishing guilt based only on a "preponderance of the evidence," as is customary in civil cases, courts were denying criminal defendants a fundamental constitutional safeguard against the possibility that their fate be incorrectly decided due to fact-finding errors. The Court concluded that mere variations in age among criminal defendants will not suffice to warrant the use of different burdens of proof so long as they all face loss of liberty as a possible sentence. Summary from Oyez.org – see more here, including a link to the oral argument and the case.

Breed v. Jones, 421 U.S. 519 (1975)

Trial in adult court after adjudication in juvenile court for the same charge(s) constitutes double jeopardy


Facts: A juvenile court found 17-year-old Gary Jones guilty of acts that would constitute robbery if he were tried as an adult. After the hearing, the court determined that Jones should be prosecuted as an adult. Jones filed for habeas corpus, arguing that the criminal trial put him in double jeopardy. The trial court, court of appeal, and Supreme Court of California denied the writ. The case went to trial and the court found Jones guilty of robbery in the first degree.

Jones again filed for a writ of habeas corpus in Federal district court. The court denied the petition, holding that hearings before juvenile court and criminal trials are so different that double jeopardy did not apply. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. The court reasoned that the application of double jeopardy would not impede the juvenile courts. The court also held that allowing the criminal verdict to stand would destroy confidence in the judicial system.

Question: Was Gary Jones put in double jeopardy when he was tried as an adult after an adjudication hearing in juvenile court?

Conclusion: Yes. In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice Warren Burger delivered the opinion of the court vacating the lower court decision and remanding. The unanimous Supreme Court held that the criminal trial put Jones in jeopardy for a second time. The Court suggested that juvenile courts make determinations about whether to try a juvenile as an adult at a preliminary hearing before any adjudication is made. This would avoid any double jeopardy and allow juveniles to be tried as adults when appropriate.

Summary from Oyez.org – see more here, including a link to the oral argument and the case.


Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)

The death penalty, as applied to youth under 18, is cruel and unusual punishment, and is unconstitutional.

Facts: Christopher Simmons was sentenced to death in 1993, when he was only 17. A series of appeals to state and federal courts lasted until 2002, but each appeal was rejected. Then, in 2002, the Missouri Supreme Court stayed Simmon's execution while the U.S. Supreme Court decided Atkins v. Virginia, a case that dealt with the execution of the mentally disabled. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally disabled (or "mentally retarded" in the vernacular of the day) violated the Eighth and 14th Amendment prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment because a majority of Americans found it cruel and unusual, the Missouri Supreme Court decided to reconsider Simmons' case. Using the reasoning from the Atkins case, the Missouri court decided, 6-to-3, that the U.S. Supreme Court's 1989 decision in Stanford v. Kentucky, which held that executing minors was not unconstitutional, was no longer valid. The opinion in Stanford v. Kentucky had relied on a finding that a majority of Americans did not consider the execution of minors to be cruel and unusual. The Missouri court, citing numerous laws passed since 1989 that limited the scope of the death penalty, held that national opinion had changed. Finding that a majority of Americans were now opposed to the execution of minors, the court held that such executions were now unconstitutional. On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the government argued that allowing a state court to overturn a Supreme Court decision by looking at "evolving standards" would be dangerous, because state courts could just as easily decide that executions prohibited by the Supreme Court (such as the execution of the mentally ill in Atkins v. Virginia) were now permissible due to a change in the beliefs of the American people. Question: Does the execution of minors violate the prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment" found in the Eighth Amendment and applied to the states through the incorporation doctrine of the 14th Amendment? Conclusion: Yes. In a 5-4 opinion delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court ruled that standards of decency have evolved so that executing minors is "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The majority cited a consensus against the juvenile death penalty among state legislatures, and its own determination that the death penalty is a disproportionate punishment for minors. Finally the Court pointed to "overwhelming" international opinion against the juvenile death penalty. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Clarence Thomas all dissented. Summary from Oyez.org – see more here, including a link to the oral argument and the case.


Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010)

Life imprisonment without parole, as applied to youth under 18 convicted of a non-homicidal offense, is cruel and unusual punishment and is unconstitutional.


Facts: When Terrence Graham was 16 years old, he was convicted of armed burglary and attempted armed robbery. He served a 12-month sentence and was released. Six months later Mr. Graham was tried and convicted by a Florida state court of armed home robbery and sentenced to life in prison without parole. On appeal, he argued that the imposition of a life sentence without parole on a juvenile, on its face, violated the Eighth Amendment and moreover constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and thus violated the Eighth Amendment. The District Court of Appeal of Florida disagreed. It held that Mr. Graham's sentence neither was a facial violation of the Eighth Amendment nor constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Question: Does the imposition of a life sentence without parole on a juvenile convicted of a non-homicidal offense violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment?"

Conclusion: Yes. The Supreme Court held that the Eight Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-homicidal crime. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, reasoned that because this case implicates a particular type of sentence as it applies to an entire class of offenders (juveniles), the categorical analysis under Atkins, Roper, and Kennedy governs. Under this approach, the Court must: (1) consider objective indicia of society's standards and (2) determine whether the punishment in question violates the Constitution guided by the standards elaborated by controlling precedents. Here, the Court concluded that both (1) and (2) indicated that the punishment in question for the class in question was unconstitutional. The Court made a point to note that life sentences for juveniles for non-homicidal crimes has been "rejected the world over."

Summary from Oyez.org – see more here, including a link to the oral argument and the case.


J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011)

A youth’s age must be considered when deciding whether the juvenile is considered to be in custody.

Facts: A North Carolina boy identified as J.D.B. was 13-year-old special education student in 2005 when the police showed up at his school to question him about a string of neighborhood burglaries. The police had learned that the boy was in possession of a digital camera that had been reported stolen.The boy was escorted to a school conference room, where he was interrogated in the presence of school officials. J.D.B.'s parents were not contacted, and he was not given any warnings about his rights under the 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona, such as the right to remain silent or to have access to a lawyer. J.D.B. confessed to the crimes, but later sought to have his confession suppressed on the basis that he was never read his Miranda rights. He argued that because he was effectively in police custody when he incriminated himself, he was entitled to Miranda protections. In December 2009, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that it could not consider the boy's age or special education status in determining whether he was in custody, and because he was not in custody, he was not entitled to Miranda warnings. Question: Should courts consider the age of a juvenile suspect in deciding whether he or she is in custody for Miranda purposes? Conclusion: Yes. A divided Supreme Court reversed the lower court order in an opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the state court to determine whether the youth was in custody when he was interrogated. (1966). "It is beyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave. Seeing no reason for police officers or courts to blind themselves to that commonsense reality, we hold that a child's age properly informs the Miranda custody analysis," Sotomayor wrote for the majority. Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. "The Court's decision in this case may seem on first consideration to be modest and sensible, but in truth it is neither, Alito writes. "It is fundamentally inconsistent with one of the main justifications for the Miranda rule: the perceived need for a clear rule that can be easily applied in all cases. And today's holding is not needed to protect the constitutional rights of minors who are questioned by the police." Summary from Oyez.org – see more here, including a link to the oral argument and the case.


Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012)

Mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, as applied to youth under 18, is cruel and unusual punishment, and is unconstitutional.


Facts: In July 2003, Evan Miller, along with Colby Smith, killed Cole Cannon by beating Cannon with a baseball bat and burning Cannon's trailer while Cannon was inside. Miller was 14 years old at the time. In 2004, Miller was transferred from the Lawrence County Juvenile Court to Lawrence County Circuit Court to be tried as an adult for capital murder during the course of an arson. In 2006, a grand jury indicted Miller. At trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. The trial court sentenced Miller to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Miller filed a post-trial motion for a new trial, arguing that sentencing a 14-year-old to life without the possibility of parole constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion. On appeal, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the lower court's decision. The Supreme Court of Alabama denied Miller's petition for writ of certiorari.

In the companion case, petitioner Kuntrell Jackson, along with Derrick Shields and Travis Booker, robbed a local movie store in Blytheville, Arkansas in November, 1999. The three boys were 14 years old at the time. While walking to the store, Jackson discovered that Shields was hiding a shotgun in his coat. During the robbery, Shields shot the store clerk and the three boys fled the scene. Jackson was tried and convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery in July, 2003. The trial court sentenced Jackson to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

In January 2008, Jackson filed a petition seeking a writ of habeas corpus in circuit court. He argued that his sentence was unusual and excessive, violating his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The circuit court dismissed the petition and Jackson appealed. The Supreme Court of Arkansas affirmed the lower court's decision.

Question: Does the imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a fourteen-year-old child violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments' prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment?

Conclusion: Yes. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Elena Kagan reversed the Arkansas and Alabama Supreme Courts' decisions and remanded. The Court held that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment forbids the mandatory sentencing of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders. Children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes. While a mandatory life sentence for adults does not violate the Eighth Amendment, such a sentence would be an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment for children.

Summary from Oyez.org – see more here, including a link to the oral argument and the case.


Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 734 (2016)

Miller’s ban on mandatory life without parole for youth applies retroactively.

Facts: In 1963, Henry Montgomery was found guilty and received the death penalty for the murder of Charles Hunt, which Montgomery committed less than two weeks after he turned 17. He appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, and his conviction was overturned because of community prejudice. At his new trial, Montgomery was again convicted, but he was sentenced to life without parole. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, in which the Court held that mandatory sentencing schemes requiring children convicted of homicide to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole violate the Eighth Amendment. In light of that decision, Montgomery filed a motion in state district court to correct what he argued was now an illegal sentence. The trial court denied Montgomery’s motion, and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied Montgomery’s application by holding that the decision in Miller does not apply retroactively. Questions: 1) Does the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory sentencing schemes that require children convicted of homicide to be sentenced to life in prison without parole, apply retroactively? (2) Does the U.S. Supreme Court have the jurisdiction to review the Louisiana Supreme Court’s determination that the Miller rule does not apply retroactively? Conclusion: Yes, and yes. The Supreme Court had jurisdiction to review the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which prohibits sentencing schemes that impose a punishment of mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders convicted of homicide, applied retroactively. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the opinion for the 6-3 majority. The Court held that, when the Court establishes a substantive constitutional rule, that rule must apply retroactively because such a rule provides for constitutional rights that go beyond procedural guarantees. When a state court fails to give effect to a substantive rule, that decision is reviewable because failure to apply a substantive rule always results in the violation of a constitutional right, while failure to apply a procedural rule might or might not result in an illegitimate verdict. The Court held that Miller established a substantive rule because it prohibited the imposition of a sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders. The Court’s analysis in that case was based on precedent that established that the Constitution treats children as different from adults for the purposes of sentencing. Therefore, the rule the Court announced in Miller made life without parole an unconstitutional punishment for a class of defendants based on their status as juveniles, and such a rule is substantive rather than procedural. Summary from Oyez.org – see more here, including a link to the oral argument and the case.


Jones v. Mississippi, 593 U.S. ___ (2021)

A finding of permanent incorrigibility is not required to impose a sentence of life without the possibility of parole on a youth under the age of 18.


Facts: When Brett Jones was fifteen years old, he stabbed his grandfather to death. He was convicted of murder, and the Circuit Court of Lee County, Mississippi, imposed a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment, and Mississippi law made him ineligible for parole. The appellate court affirmed his conviction and sentence. In a post-conviction relief proceeding, the Supreme Court of Mississippi ordered that Jones be resentenced after a hearing to determine whether he was entitled to parole eligibility. Subsequently, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. __ (2016). In Miller, the Court held that mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. And in Montgomery, it clarified that Miller barred life without the possibility of parole “for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” The circuit court held the hearing weighing the factors laid out in Miller and determined Jones was not entitled to parole eligibility.

Question: Does the Eighth Amendment require a sentencing authority to find that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before it may impose a sentence of life without the possibility of parole?

Conclusion: A sentencing authority need not find a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before imposing a sentence of life without the possibility of parole; a discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient to impose a sentence of life without parole on a defendant who committed a homicide when they were under 18. Justice Brett Kavanaugh authored the 6-3 majority opinion.

In Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), the Court held that “a sentencer [must] follow a certain process—considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics—before imposing” a life-without-parole sentence.” And in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016), the Court stated that “a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility ... is not required.” Taken together, these two cases refute Jones’s argument that a finding of permanent incorrigibility is constitutionally necessary to impose a sentence of life without parole. The Court noted that it expresses neither agreement nor disagreement with Jones’s sentence, and its decision does not preclude states from imposing additional sentencing limits in cases involving juvenile commission of homicide.

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