Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Minors Cannot Be Charged in Adult Court for Crimes Rejected by Juvenile Court

If a juvenile court finds no probable cause that a child committed a criminal act, then an adult court has no authority to re-charge and prosecute the juvenile on that charge, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled on what charges an adult court can consider when a juvenile is bound over to adult court on multiple charges.

The Court vacated the nine-year prison sentence of a Cuyahoga County man who as a child entered into a plea agreement on charges related to a juvenile bindover proceeding to adult court. At age 17, Nicholas Smith was facing 50 years in adult prison when his case was transferred to adult court.

After the initial charges were filed in juvenile court, the juvenile judge found insufficient evidence to charge Smith for half of the counts against him from a 2017 robbery. Once his case was transferred, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office re-charged him with all eight counts that were originally before the juvenile judge, including the ones that were rejected.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Jennifer Brunner explained that the words “case” and “acts charged,” as used in the state law allowing for the transfer of juveniles to adult court, did not authorize re-charging Smith in adult court with crimes rejected by the juvenile court. In reversing an Eighth District Court of Appeals decision, Justice Brunner wrote the only allegations the adult court can consider are those for which the juvenile court found probable cause.

“To hold that the state may seek criminal charges against a juvenile in adult court for acts that the court with exclusive, original jurisdiction found to be unsupported by probable cause would be noxious to fundamental fairness,” she wrote.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Michael P. Donnelly and Melody J. Stewart joined Justice Brunner’s opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote the law clearly states that a juvenile’s “case,” which includes all the allegations filed in juvenile court, transfers to the jurisdiction of the adult court once the juvenile court approves the bindover. Justice Kennedy also noted the majority stated that a finding of no probable cause “effectively dismisses” the charge against the youth. She wrote the law should not be interpreted as dismissing the charge because the juvenile court has a separate procedure for dismissing charges.

Justices Patrick F. Fischer and R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion.

Youths Charged for Armed Robbery
In August 2017, when Smith was 16, he and another juvenile identified in court records as “R.H.” confronted two women in front of the women’s Cleveland home. R.H. allegedly told one woman to give him the keys or he would shoot her.

The other woman asked the youths if they wanted her purse, and she then threw it on the ground. Smith grabbed the purse, which contained the woman’s cellphone, and the two minors drove away. The women called the police and informed the officers they could track her cellphone. The police soon located Smith and R.H. The tracked cellphone was in Smith’s pocket.

A case against minors begins with filing of a complaint in juvenile court. The prosecutor’s complaint alleged Smith committed eight acts that would be crimes if committed by an adult. Two counts charged Smith with aggravated robbery with a firearm specification. He also was charged with grand theft for stealing the vehicle. Other charges included purse snatching, stealing credit cards, fleeing from police, and illegally having a weapon.

The juvenile court conducted a probable cause hearing on the charges. Because Smith was 16 and faced adult felony charges for using a gun to commit a crime, he was potentially subject to mandatory transfer of his case to adult court. The juvenile court found there was no probable cause to believe Smith had or used a gun but ruled there was probable cause to believe Smith committed aggravated robbery and grand theft without a gun and that he stole the woman’s purse.

The juvenile court found no probable cause for the remaining charges and for the added gun specifications to the charges filed. Because the gun charges were rejected, the judge’s decision to transfer Smith to the adult court became discretionary.

Following state law procedure for discretionary bindovers, the juvenile judge conducted an amenability hearing and determined Smith, even though a child, was not amenable for treatment in juvenile court and transferred his case to adult court. Once Smith’s case was before the adult court, the prosecutor’s office sought grand jury indictments for Smith on all the original charges, plus another charge for attempted escape from a detention facility that occurred after the robbery.

Youth Challenges Adult Conviction
With the charges, including the firearm specifications, now before the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, Smith faced a potential 50-year sentence in adult prison. In September 2018, Smith pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated robbery, with a gun specification, and grand theft without a gun charge. He also pleaded guilty to the escape charge, and he was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Smith appealed his conviction to the Eighth District, contesting the transfer of the charges for which no probable cause was found by the juvenile court. The Eighth District relied on a previous ruling that all counts arising “out of the same course of conduct” can be transferred regardless of whether probable cause was found.

Smith appealed the Eighth District’s decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Transfer Proceeding Analyzed
Justice Brunner explained that Ohio joined most states in the 1970s in toughening its penalties for youth who commit violent crime. Ordinarily, the state treats juvenile crimes differently than adults when they commit what would be adult crimes and they are handled by juvenile courts. However, state statute requires in some circumstances, and permits in others, that minors be tried in adult court for acts that would otherwise be crimes when committed by adults.

The opinion noted that a critical issue before the Court was whether it is the “case” or a specific charge filed against a minor that transfers to adult court in discretionary bindovers under R.C. 2152.12. The opinion noted that throughout the statute, the juvenile court is instructed to determine whether “probable cause exists to believe that the child committed ‘the act charged.’”

Under R.C. 2152.12(B), the juvenile court “may transfer the case” if it finds probable cause that the child committed the act charged. The law defines “act charged” but does not define “case,” the Court noted.

In its opinion, the Court interpreted the ordinary meaning of “case” as “the matter before the court or the legal claims to be considered by the court.” Smith’s “case” was composed of the acts transferred, that is, “the acts that the juvenile court found were supported by probable cause,” the Court wrote.

The only charges that could move forward to the amenability stage were the three counts supported by probable cause, the Court stated. For these remaining charges, only after finding that Smith was not amenable to rehabilitation in the juvenile system, did the charges transfer to adult court. On transfer, the three remaining charges, not the original eight charges, were before the adult court, which lacked jurisdiction to consider all eight original counts, the opinion stated.

Along with vacating Smith’s sentence, the Court remanded the case to the common pleas court for further proceedings.

Dismissal of Charges Unwarranted, Dissent Stated
The majority “falsely equates the finding of no probable cause with a dismissal” of a charge, the dissenting opinion by Justice Kennedy stated, and that “puts asunder the orderly transfer” of a juvenile’s case to adult court, leaving the juvenile to face charges in separate courts.

The dissent stated that the majority’s judgment has no basis in law and that the Court should apply the law as written. It noted that R.C. 2152.12(B) authorizes the juvenile court to “transfer the case” if it finds there is probable cause to believe the juvenile committed “the act charged.” The common understanding of a criminal “case” is all the charges emanating from a series of related events.

The charge against a juvenile begins with a complaint, and once the complaint is filed with a court it becomes a case with all the “acts charged” in it. The complaint against Smith charges numerous criminal acts, and “the case at issue here includes all the acts charged in that original juvenile complaint,” Justice Kennedy explained.

If the juvenile court finds probable cause to believe that the juvenile has committed one of the acts charged in the complaint, the entire case is eligible for transfer to adult court, the dissent stated. Justice Kennedy contrasted that conclusion with the holding of the majority:

“[T]he majority concludes that what is transferred to the adult court is the single act charged. But this conclusion leads to an absurd result. Under that analysis, a complaint charging numerous acts would generate as many cases as there are charges to transfer.”

The dissent also challenged the majority’s conclusion that a finding of no probable cause means that the charge has “effectively been dismissed,” pointing out that the majority does not explain what that means.

“Does it mean the charge remains pending under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, awaiting further evidence from the state? Or does it mean that the charge is dismissal without prejudice or dismissal with prejudice? Regardless, none of these results finds support in the law,” the dissent stated.

Justice Kennedy wrote that the probable cause hearing occurs under Juvenile Rule 30, whereas hearings on the merits of the case are heard at a separate hearing under Juvenile Rule 29. The juvenile court lacks authority to dismiss charges at the probable cause stage. The dissent stated that the majority would have juveniles facing charges simultaneously in two courts. But, Justice Kennedy wrote, this interpretation is contrary to law: “R.C. 2152.12(I) categorically severs the jurisdiction of the juvenile court over any of the delinquent acts charged in a complaint when the case is transferred.”

The dissent concluded that the majority has created an outcome “by inserting its own policy-making preferences into the language of the statute” and “therefore elevat[ing] its policy preferences over the will of the people.”

2019-1813. State v. Smith, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-274.

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