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Tips on Using Age to Defend Juvenile Clients in Criminal Court, Part 2 – by Guest Blogger John Mills

The North Carolina Court of Appeals has recently released a couple of important opinions for juvenile justice.  The first, State v. Bowlin, I covered in a prior post.  Here, I’ll cover State v. Collins.*  As with the prior post, I’ll provide an overview of the opinion and some of its implications, providing some practice points along the way.

In Collins, the Court of Appeals was considering a rather straightforward question with profound implications for Mr. Collins: whether the state admitted sufficient evidence of the Superior Court’s jurisdiction.  The court was considering four offenses.  The state’s evidence showed that one offense took place prior to Mr. Collins’ sixteenth birthday.  The state’s evidence was, at best, ambiguous about two offenses.  And its evidence was clear that the fourth took place after his sixteenth birthday.

Practice Point 1: Be sure that you know that you know your client’s date of birth, and be prepared to prove it with admissible evidence (other than your client’s testimony).  If a gas station is able to implement a universal i.d. check policy, then so can you.

When the offenses took place was critical because if they were prior to his sixteenth birthday, then the District Court had exclusive, original jurisdiction over them.  If they took place after, then the jurisdiction was proper in the Superior Court.

This distinction had major implications for Mr. Collins.  In District Court, the judge could choose whether or not to treat him as an adult.  That court had the power, based on his circumstances, to determine whether and for how long juvenile custody was appropriate and to consider additional programming aimed at rehabilitation.  In Superior Court, the judge would be required to impose mandatory minimums under the Structured Sentencing Act.

Practice Point 2: Make the most of the transfer hearing.  It is an opportunity to make all manner of equitable arguments on the behalf of your juvenile client.

To make a decision about whether to treat a juvenile offender as an adult, a District Court must consider eight factors about the juvenile, including the age, maturity, intellectual functioning, and capacity for rehabilitation.  These factors provide significant leeway for presenting evidence helpful to your client.  Evidence related to both the juvenile and the juvenile’s community can be considered.   A wide range of witnesses—including expert witnesses—should be considered for presentation at the transfer hearing: parents and relatives, teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists, religious leaders, coaches, friends, and any other person who knows the client well.

The argument against transfer should focus on the specifics of your client.  Knowing your client well will enable you to make a compelling case against treating your client like an adult, exposing your client to a lengthy prison sentence.

Practice Point 3: Even if you receive an adverse decision at the transfer hearing, the evidence you develop for the hearing could be presented in a sentencing hearing in Superior Court.

Even if the transfer hearing does not go well and if your client is convicted, the evidence you prepared for the transfer hearing may be presented at a sentencing proceeding.  At sentencing, the judge will consider the defendant’s age, maturity, mental capacity, potential support in the community, character, and “any other factor reasonably related to sentencing.”   The work you put in to develop a robust presentation at the transfer hearing will serve you well if you find yourself in a sentencing proceeding in Superior Court.

For Mr. Collins, ultimately, the Court of Appeals vacated three of his four convictions.  For the fourth, the one for the conduct committed as a sixteen year old, the court ordered that he be resentenced.

Juvenile cases present a myriad of legal issues.  Our juvenile clients have a heightened capacity for change and rehabilitation, and we owe it to them to make the best case possible for leniency, both at the transfer hearing and at sentencing.

John Mills is a Principal Attorney at the Phillips Black Project and a Lecturer at UC Berkeley School of Law.  He represents death-sentenced inmates and juveniles facing life without parole sentences and conducts research on the administration of our nation’s harshest punishments.

*I served as counsel of record in Collins.

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