February 01, 2012

Determining Juvenile's Age Key to Ensuring Juvenile Received Protections

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

District court’s order denying juvenile’s motion to dismiss indictment based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction was immediately appealable. Juvenile claimed the indictment misstated his age at the time of the alleged crime and juvenile court, not district court, had subject matter jurisdiction. Determining the defendant’s age at the time of the offense finally determines his right to be tried in juvenile court and requires immediate review to ensure juvenile court protections are not lost.

State v. Ali, 806 N.W.2d 45 (Minn.).

A young man was charged with six counts of first-degree murder. The indictment alleged the defendant was 17 years old on the date of his alleged offenses and therefore was automatically subject to trial in district court under Minnesota statute.

The defendant moved to dismiss the indictment, claiming he was 15 on the date of the alleged offenses and therefore the juvenile court had exclusive jurisdiction in his case. The district court denied the motion. The court of appeals held the dismissal order was not an appealable order. The defendant appealed.

The Supreme Court of Minnesota reversed. The court found the district court’s order in this case denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the indictment based on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction was immediately appealable. The court reasoned that if the defendant was 15 years old at the time of his alleged offense, the district court would lack jurisdiction to proceed. Without subject matter jurisdiction, there would be no point to subjecting the parties to trial before that

Further, the court found the district court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the indictment fell within a class of orders that finally determine claims of right that are distinct from and collateral to rights that are asserted in the action. Such orders are "too important to be denied review and too independent of the cause itself to require appellate consideration be deferred until the whole case is adjudicated."

The court explained that determining the defendant’s age at the time of the offense finally determines his right to be tried in juvenile court. This right is separate from and collateral to rights asserted in the action (defendant’s guilt or innocence). The question of the district court’s jurisdiction was also distinct from the merits of the action since the defendant’s age was not an element of the alleged charges. The court stressed that the issue required immediate review because juvenile court protections (e.g., confidential proceedings and records) would be lost if the case was tried in district court.

The court next considered the standard of proof that applies when determining a defendant’s age. The district court concluded the state had to prove defendant’s age by a preponderance of the evidence. Defendant countered that the state should prove his age beyond a reasonable doubt.

To decide the proper standard to apply to the question of the defendant’s age, the court assessed the interests of the state and the defendant relative to the risks of error. It considered the risk of error if a defendant under age 16 on the date of the alleged offense is wrongly tried in juvenile court.

While juvenile court affords defendants certain protections not available in district court, if a juvenile is erroneously tried in juvenile court the public may be denied information about the proceedings that it would otherwise be entitled to receive. Conversely, the district court also affords certain protections, such as a jury trial, that a defendant could be deprived of if erroneously tried in juvenile court. The court concluded that the risk of erroneous deprivation of a right or verdict should be born equally by the state and the defendant.

The defendant argued the U.S. Supreme Court requires a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard in criminal prosecutions against juveniles. He claimed that establishing his age was an element of the offenses for which he had been charged. He pointed to decisions in other jurisdictions finding that facts establishing territorial jurisdiction had to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The court disagreed that a defendant’s age is not an element of the defendant’s murder charges. Determining the defendant’s age only determines if the juvenile or district court has jurisdiction, an issue quite separate from the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

The defendant claimed the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard applied because of the different outcomes between being tried in juvenile and district court—detention to age 19 or 21, or life imprisonment. While the U.S. and Minnesota Supreme Courts have held that facts that increase the maximum possible punishment must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, that argument failed in this case. The court explained that establishing the defendant’s age determines which court has jurisdiction. Once that’s decided, sentencing is based on the state’s ability to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Defendant also argued the beyond-a -reasonable-doubt standard applied to satisfy constitutional due process standards under Mathews v. Eldridge. The court disagreed, emphasizing that the defendant and the state have an equal interest in trying the defendant in the proper court. When a defendant’s age is under debate, the defendant has direct knowledge and control over the information needed to resolve the dispute. The state on the other hand is at a disadvantage and rarely can meet a standard higher than a preponderance of the evidence. Therefore, the lesser standard applied.