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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Mandatory Transfer of Juveniles to Adult Courts Is Unconstitutional

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled today that mandatory transfer of juveniles to the common pleas courts violates juveniles’ right to due process as guaranteed by the Ohio Constitution.

The Court also ruled that Ohio statutes allowing the discretionary transfer of juveniles older than 14 years to common pleas courts are constitutional and satisfy due process guaranteed by the state’s constitution.

The decision reverses a Second District Court of Appeals ruling and remands the case to the Montgomery County juvenile court for an amenability hearing.

Writing for the majority, Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger stated: “We hold that mandatory transfer of juveniles without providing for the protection of a discretionary determination by the juvenile court judge violates juveniles’ right to due process.”

Juvenile Appeals Automatic Transfer to Adult Court
A December 2013 complaint filed in Montgomery County juvenile court alleged that Matthew I. Aalim committed an act that would be considered aggravated robbery if committed by an adult. A firearm specification  was added to the charge. The prosecutor filed a motion to transfer the 16-year-old to the general division of common pleas court to be tried as an adult, which an Ohio statute requires in certain circumstances.

After conducting a hearing, the juvenile court found probable cause to believe Aalim committed the act alleged cited in the complaint, including using a firearm. Consequently, in January 2014, the juvenile court automatically transferred the case.

Aalim filed a motion to dismiss the indictment and transfer the case back to juvenile court, claiming Ohio law violates juveniles’ rights to due process and equal protection and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. and Ohio constitutions.

The common pleas court overruled the motion, and Aalim pleaded no contest to the two aggravated robbery counts. In May 2014, the court accepted the pleas, dismissed the firearm specification as agreed to in a plea agreement, and sentenced the defendant to four years in prison.

Aalim appealed, and the Second District affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Aalim’s case was appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which agreed to consider whether R.C. 2152.10(A)(2)(b) and 2152.12(A)(1)(b) violate juveniles’ rights to due process and equal protection as guaranteed by the U.S. and Ohio constitutions.  Oral arguments for this case were heard in April 2016 in Pomeroy at Meigs High School, as part of the Ohio Supreme Court’s off-site court program.

Juvenile’s Charges Met Mandatory-Transfer Conditions
Aalim’s alleged crime was a category-two offense. He was charged with using a firearm, and he was 16 years old at the time. These criteria met conditions for automatic transfer from juvenile court to adult court when there is probable cause to believe the juvenile committed the act as charged.

Justice Lanzinger noted, “To prevail on a facial constitutional challenge to a statute, the challenging party must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the statute is unconstitutional. “She also wrote: “[W]e have repeatedly recognized that the Ohio Constitution contains greater protections than the federal Constitution in certain instances.”

The state’s juvenile court system is a legislative creation, she stated, based on promoting social welfare and emphasizing individual assessment, with a goal of determining what’s best for the child – possible treatment and rehabilitation – to reintegrate juveniles into society.

Citing a 2012 Ohio decision, In re C.P., Justice Lanzinger explained that “fundamental fairness” in juvenile proceedings is key to protecting due process. The Court held in C.P. that fundamental fairness requires the juvenile court judge to decide the appropriateness of an adult penalty for juvenile acts and that additional procedural protections may be required for juveniles to meet the juvenile court system’s goals of rehabilitation and reintegration.

Likewise, the Court today concluded that the legislatively created juvenile-court system, along with its own decisions on due-process protections for juveniles, makes clear that Ohio juveniles “have been given a special status” – a status the U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged in cases decided in the last 11 years, which have indicated that juveniles are entitled to special consideration even when tried as adults.

According to Ohio law, all persons under the age of 18 are treated as children during juvenile delinquency proceedings until transfer occurs, so all 16- and 17-year-olds fall under the definition of “child” and are afforded constitutional protections that all children receive until transfer to adult court is complete.

“Their age should not be treated as the sole decisive factor in determining whether they are transferred for criminal prosecution,” Justice Lanzinger wrote. The Court stated that all children, regardless of age, “must have individual consideration at amenability hearings before being transferred from the protections of juvenile court to adult court upon a finding of probable cause for certain offenses.”

In 2012’s Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court explained three important differences between juveniles and adults: Children have a “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility”; children are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures; and a child’s character is not as “well formed” as an adult’s and his actions are less likely to be ‘evidence of irretrievabl[e] deprav[ity].’”

The Court ruled that because children are constitutionally required to be treated differently from adults for purposes of sentencing, juvenile procedures also must account for the differences between children and adults.

Justice Lanzinger wrote: “The mandatory-transfer statutes preclude a juvenile court judge from taking any individual circumstances into account before automatically sending a child who is 16 or older to adult court. This one-size-fits-all approach runs counter to the aims and goals of the juvenile system, and even those who would be amenable to the juvenile system are sent to adult court. Juvenile court judges must be allowed the discretion that the General Assembly permits for other children. They should be able to distinguish between those children who should be treated as adults and those who should not.”

Because the Court determined that the mandatory-transfer provisions of R.C. 2152.10(A) and 2152.12(A) are unconstitutional, it severed those provisions from the law. 

Discretionary-Transfer Is Permitted
Ohio law also allows the discretionary transfer of children, aged 14 or older, to adult court when there is probable cause to believe the child committed the charged act, when the children are not amenable to care or rehabilitation within the juvenile justice system, and when community safety calls for children to be subject to adult sanctions. R.C. 2152.12 specifically requires the juvenile court to investigate the child’s social history, education, family situation, and other factors relevant to whether the child is amenable to juvenile rehabilitation.

“The discretionary-transfer process satisfies fundamental fairness under the Ohio Constitution,” Justice Lanzinger wrote. “It takes into account the fact that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of an eventual sentencing after findings of guilt.”

The discretionary-transfer process also ensures that those children who are not amenable to dispositions in juvenile court still will be transferred to adult court, the Court noted.

Joining Justice Lanzinger in the majority were Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and William M. O’Neill. Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred with part of the majority decision and dissented in part, in a written opinion. Justice Judith L. French dissented with a written opinion joined by Justice Terrence O’Donnell.

Justice Kennedy Concurs in Part and Dissents in Part
In a separate opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy agreed with the majority that discretionary-transfer statutes do not offend the due-process provision of Article I, Section 16 of the Ohio Constitution. She parted with the majority in its determination that Article I, Section 16 of the Ohio Constitution requires a juvenile to undergo an amenability hearing before the juvenile is transferred to adult court.

Justice Kennedy noted that the majority reached its conclusion by interpreting Ohio’s Due Course of Law Clause found in Article I, Section 16, of the Ohio Constitution differently than the comparable clause in the United States Constitution, which is contrary to the Supreme Court of Ohio’s precedent dating to 1893. The majority’s decision “unmoored due process from the precedents that have ensured that the judicial branch does not abuse the guarantee by imposing its policy views on the General Assembly under the rubric of alleged ‘fundamental fairness,’ ” she said.

Stating that the majority relies on the due-process standard of “fundamental fairness,” Justice Kennedy wrote that fundamental fairness requires notice, counsel, confrontation, cross-examination, and a standard of proof – all rights that are satisfied in Ohio’s current mandatory-transfer procedure. “Fundamental fairness” does not require an amenability hearing because the juvenile court system was created by the General Assembly, and the right to an amenability hearing is conferred by statute not by the Ohio Constitution.

She also called the majority’s reasoning “unsound” when applying fundamental fairness to the juvenile-transfer process. “The majority takes this unique statutorily created court system and boot-straps onto it ‘fundamental fairness’ requirements which are not required by statute or by the explicit text or history of the Ohio Constitution.”

“The question whether a juvenile offender of the kind described in R.C. 2152.12(A)(1)(b) is amenable to care or rehabilitation within the juvenile system does not implicate fundamental fairness,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “It is a policy decision that is firmly in the hands of the General Assembly.”

Justice French Dissents
In her dissent, Justice Judith L. French stated the majority offers no basis for holding that the Ohio Constitution affords juveniles greater due-process protections regarding transfer than the U.S. Constitution provides. Likewise, there also was no basis for concluding Ohio’s mandatory-transfer statutes violate the Ohio Constitution without first considering whether the federal due-process clause guarantees juveniles an individual amenability hearing.

Justice French wrote that she disagrees with the Court’s decision to create greater protections under the Ohio Constitution without compelling reasons to do so. On the merits, she wrote, she also disagrees with the majority’s decision that Ohio’s statutory mandatory-transfer provisions are unconstitutional.

She pointed out that juveniles who qualify for mandatory transfer have the right to a pre-transfer hearing at which the state must prove that the juvenile both falls within the statutory classifications for mandatory transfer and also that probable cause exists to believe the juvenile committed the charged offense. These protections, she stated, give the juvenile adequate due process prior to transfer to adult court.

In parting with the majority, she holds that Ohio’s statutes requiring mandatory transfer of juveniles under certain circumstances are constitutional.

“It is evident from the history and evolution of juvenile proceedings in this country, as well as courts’ consistent rejection of claims of fundamental rights to juvenile proceedings, that there is no fundamental right deeply rooted in the nation’s history to juvenile court proceedings or to an amenability hearing. Juvenile courts are legislative creations rooted in social-welfare philosophy,” she reasoned. 

She wrote, “But while a majority of this court may prefer to afford juvenile court judges discretion to determine, in all instances, whether a juvenile offender should be treated as an alleged delinquent in juvenile court or as a criminal defendant in adult court, that is an issue for the General Assembly. The due process clause does not invest this court with the power to sit as a super-legislature to second-guess the General Assembly’s policy choices.”

2015-0677. State v. Aalim, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-8278.

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