In re T.K. Show Court’s Indecision on Importance of Statutory Requirements by Jonathon Woodruf
Last month, the NC Court of Appeals in In the Matter of T.K. declined to extend the holding from In re D.S., 364 N.C. 184 (2010), in favor of a new holding placing some jurisdictional responsibility on Juvenile Court Counselors.
The principal issue in In re D.S. was the timing with which a delinquency petition was filed. An SRO filed two separate complaints based on the same set of facts. The first petition charged the juvenile’s conduct as a simple assault and was filed on the same day that the event occurred. The second petition charged the juvenile with sexual battery and was filed approximately 26 days later, 11 days beyond statutory requirements. The Juvenile Code requires that Juvenile Court Counselors shall complete the evaluation of a complaint within 15 days of receipt of the complaint, with a 15 day extension at the discretion of the Chief Juvenile Court Counselor (see N.C. Gen. Stat. 7B-1703(a)). On appeal, it was argued that it was error for the court to have adjudicated the juvenile for the second petition, because it arose from the same set of facts as the first and therefore was in essence the same petition. The fact that the second petition was filed beyond the statutory limit meant that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The juvenile claimed that the Juvenile Court Counselor should have investigated the initial complaint further and included sexual battery if it was appropriate.
The Court disagreed, explaining that the language of the statute intended for each separate complaint, as in the actual document that is alleging delinquency, to be considered by itself without reference to earlier complaints. The second petition was therefore filed within the statutory limit and was adjudicated properly. The Court went on to say that it is not the role of the Juvenile Court Counselor to conduct extensive investigations of the like which were suggested by the juvenile on appeal. Specifically, a Juvenile Court Counselor’s primary responsibility upon receiving a complaint is to determine whether they are strictly required to or prohibited from filing a petition based on the complaint. If neither of those apply, the Counselor is then to conduct an evaluation to decide whether or not a petition should be filed. The Court stated that the Counselor is neither expressly permitted nor obligated to investigate anything beyond the allegations in the complaint to find any and every offense that may apply. Additionally, the Counselor is expressly forbidden from conducting field investigations for the purpose of substantiating claims and providing supplementary evidence during the intake process. Therefore, the Court concludes, the Juvenile Court Counselor in this case did exactly what was supposed to be done. The Court also states that there is no basis for a finding that the statutory time limits have any bearing on jurisdiction anyway.
This holding would seem to be in contrast with the more recent holding of In the Matter of T.K. Here the court held that a Juvenile Court Counselor’s failure to sign a petition and to mark it “Approved for Filing,” as required by N.C. Gen. Stat. 7B-1703(b), was an error that cost the court any jurisdiction over the matter. Due to a lack of precedent on this issue, the court looked at Abuse/Neglect/Dependency cases to determine the matter. There is a consistent line of cases on this issue; the lack of signatures and verification on petitions in Abuse, Neglect, and Dependency court will result in a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals ruled accordingly in T.K. and held that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction in the case due to the lack of a Juvenile Court Counselor’s signature.
The difference between these two cases seems trivial. In one the court held that a statutory requirement had nothing to do with jurisdiction, and in the second the court held that jurisdiction turned on compliance with a different statutory requirement. For practitioners, it would be wise to always make sure that the statutory requirements are followed to the letter, and to preserve such issues for appeal if they are not. Do not let a lengthy amount of practice in this area blind you to discrepancies that can result in overturned adjudications.