Supreme Court Decides When Juveniles May Be Classified as Sex Offenders
The Ohio Supreme Court today interpreted a law that provides for classifying youth as juvenile-offender registrants for sex crimes.
The Supreme Court ruled that the statute allows a juvenile court that commits a child to a secure facility to hold a hearing at the time of disposition (sentencing) to determine whether the child should be classified as a juvenile-offender registrant for committing a sexually-oriented or child-victim offense.
The 7-0 decision, written by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, affirmed the judgment of the Second District Court of Appeals and resolves a conflict among appellate courts on the issue.
A minor identified as I.A. was found delinquent in December 2011 by the Clark County Juvenile Court for a rape he committed at the age of 14. The case was transferred to his home county for disposition. At that hearing in Montgomery County, the court committed I.A. to a juvenile detention facility for at least one year and possibly until he is 21 years old. The court also decided I.A. should be classified as a juvenile-offender registrant and designated him as a Tier III sex offender/child-victim offender.
R.C. 2152.83 governs the procedure for classifying 14- and 15-year-olds as juvenile-offender registrants for committing a sexually-oriented offense or an offense involving a child victim. To decide whether a delinquent juvenile should be classified, the judge needs to hold a hearing, based on division (B)(2) of the statute.
Division (B)(1) of the law states:
The court that adjudicates a child a delinquent child, on the judge’s own motion, may conduct at the time of disposition of the child or, if the court commits the child for the delinquent act to the custody of a secure facility, may conduct at the time of the child’s release from the secure facility a hearing for the purposes described in division (B)(2) of this section ….
Justice Pfeifer concluded that the language of the statute speaks for itself.
“[H]ere, the General Assembly has written a permissive statute,” Justice Pfeifer wrote. “The plain language of the statute is unambiguous — ‘[t]he court that adjudicates a child a delinquent child’ may hold an R.C. 2152.83(B)(2) hearing at the time of the disposition. Since ‘[t]he court that adjudicates a child a delinquent child’ necessarily includes a court that commits a child to a secure facility, it follows that a court that commits a child to a secured facility may hold an R.C. 2152.83(B)(2) hearing at the time of disposition.”
“R.C. 2152.83(B)(1) does not prevent a court that commits a juvenile to a secure facility from holding an R.C. 2152.83(B)(2) hearing at the time of the disposition of the child,” he continued. “Instead, if the court that adjudicates a child delinquent commits the child to a secure facility, it has a further option: it may conduct a hearing at the time of the child’s release from the secured facility. The availability of the second opportunity to hold an R.C. 2152.83(B)(1) hearing is conditioned upon the court committing the juvenile to a secure facility. R.C. 2152.83(B)(1) presents choices for a court that commits a child to a secure facility; it expands a court’s options under certain conditions rather than restricting a court to a certain pathway.”
“In this case, R.C. 2152.83(B)(1) allowed the juvenile court, as a court that adjudicated I.A. a delinquent child, to hold an R.C. 2152.83(B)(2) hearing at the time of disposition,” Justice Pfeifer concluded. “Further, as the court that committed I.A. to a secure facility, the juvenile court also had the ability to hold a hearing upon I.A.’s release from the secure facility.”
Justice Pfeifer added that the juvenile court provided insight into why determining a juvenile offender’s classification at the disposition hearing may be beneficial. The lower court noted that by classifying a youth at sentencing, the child may be more motivated to complete sex-offender treatment because the court may later reduce or remove the sex-offender classification.
Justice Judith L. French concurred only in the judgment of the court. The remaining justices concurred in the court’s opinion.
In a separate opinion, Justice French agreed that the juvenile court could hold a classification hearing at I.A.’s disposition. But she asserted that if a hearing is held at disposition, the court cannot hold a second hearing at the time of the juvenile’s release; instead, R.C. 2152.83(B) authorizes only one hearing.
“Although the statute unambiguously provides a court with two options, the connector ‘or’ separates them, indicating distinct alternatives,” Justice French wrote. “A juvenile court may choose option one (a hearing at disposition) or option two (a hearing at release), but it cannot choose both.”
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