Criminal prosecution of juvenile: Does a juvenile court violate a juvenile’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if it considers refusal to admit guilt as one among many reasons to transfer a case to criminal court?

Commonwealth v. Taylor, 2018 WL 4290127 (Pa. Super. 2018), allocatur granted March 12, 2019, appeal docket 29 MAP 2019.

Pursuant to the Juvenile Act, a court may transfer to criminal court a case involving a juvenile defendant who is 14 or more years of age if there is a prima facie case that the child committed the delinquent act alleged, the delinquent act would be considered a felony if committed by an adult, and there are reasonable grounds to believe that the public interest would be served by the transfer. 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6355(a)(4)(i)–(iii). The statute specifies the following factors the court must consider:  the impact of the offense on the victim or victims;  the impact of the offense on the community; the threat to the safety of the public or any individual posed by the child;  the nature and circumstances of the offense allegedly committed by the child; the degree of the child’s culpability; the adequacy and duration of dispositional alternatives available under this chapter and in the adult criminal justice system; and whether the child is amenable to treatment, supervision or rehabilitation as a juvenile in light of his age,  mental capacity,  maturity, degree of criminal sophistication, previous record, prior delinquent history including the success or failure of any previous attempts by the juvenile court to rehabilitate the child, whether the child can be rehabilitated prior to the expiration of the juvenile court jurisdiction, probation or institutional reports, and  any other relevant factors. 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6355(a)(4)(iii)(A)-(G).

Here, the court transferred the case against 15-year-old Taylor, who was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault on his 11-year-old foster brother, to criminal court. In addition to considering the various statutory factors in deciding to certify the case to criminal court, the judge referenced and placed significance on the fact that Taylor refused to admit guilt, a basis that the Superior Court previously has found to violate a juvenile defendant’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

On appeal, the Superior Court panel nonetheless affirmed, finding that although the juvenile court erroneously considered Taylor’s refusal to admit guilt, it properly considered a number of other statutory factors, and that on the record as a whole the decision to try Taylor in criminal court was not in error:

Here, in stating its reasons, the juvenile court referenced Taylor’s failure to admit guilt and that admission was a step in sex offender treatment. This was error. [Citation omitted]. However, in our review of an order granting certification, we do not focus on one aspect of the record alone. Rather we examine the record as a whole to determine whether the ultimate decision of granting certification was an abuse of discretion. [Citation omitted]. We presume that the juvenile court properly considered and weighed the relevant information before it. [Citation omitted].

On this record, we find the juvenile court did not abuse its discretion in finding Taylor failed to carry his burden to establish that certification was not proper. In rendering its decision, the court cited the seriousness of the alleged crime, the time remaining in the court’s jurisdiction, and the failure of Taylor’s previous treatment to prevent the alleged crimes. We conclude that, although the juvenile court stated an impermissible consideration, based on all evidence presented at the hearing, and the totality of the reasoning provided by the juvenile court, the juvenile court did not abuse its discretion.

Slip Op. at 13.

The Supreme Court has granted allocatur to decide:

(1) Does a juvenile court violate the Fifth Amendment by holding a juvenile’s failure to admit guilt against him during a certification hearing?

(2) Did the Superior Court erroneously conclude that a juvenile court does not abuse its discretion by holding a juvenile ‘s failure to admit guilt against him during a certification hearing because the court also considered other statutorily-required factors when making its certification decision?

Allocatur grants present an excellent opportunity for your group or association to advance your legal and policy goals by filing an amicus brief. Participating as an amicus has proven to be an effective method of advising and influencing courts and often can involve far fewer resources than traditional lobbying.

If you are interested or would like more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.