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Wallace W. v. Commonwealth

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

August 9, 2019

WALLACE W., a juvenile
v.
COMMONWEALTH.

          Heard: April 4, 2019.

          Delinquent Child. Juvenile Court, Delinquent child, Jurisdiction. Jurisdiction, Delinquent child, Juvenile Court, Juvenile delinquency proceeding. Practice, Criminal, Juvenile delinquency proceeding. Statute, Construction. Words, "First offense."

         Civil action commenced in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk on September 26, 2018. The case was reported by Cypher, J.

          Peter A. Hahn (Lauren E. Russell, Committee for Public Counsel Services, also present) for the juvenile.

          Catherine Langevin Semel, Assistant District Attorney (Heidi Sylvanowicz, Assistant District Attorney, also present) for the Commonwealth.

          K. Hayne Barnwell, for youth advocacy division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services & another, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Gaziano, Lowy, Budd, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

          KAFKER, J.

         The recent amendment to G. L. c. 119, § 52, excludes from the definition of "[d]elinquent child," and thus from the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court, children who commit "a first offense of a misdemeanor for which the punishment is a fine, imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than [six] months or both such fine and imprisonment." The meaning of the term "first offense" under the statute is the central issue of this case.

         A delinquency complaint issued against the juvenile that charged him with a misdemeanor that carried a maximum penalty of imprisonment of less than six months. He moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that because he had not previously been adjudicated delinquent for any offense, the charge was a "first offense" under § 52 and must be dismissed. A Juvenile Court judge denied the motion, concluding that because the juvenile had previously been charged with a separate offense for which probable cause had been found, the new charge was not the juvenile's "first offense" under the amended statute. The juvenile filed a petition for relief in the county court, and the single justice reserved and reported the case to the full court.

         For the reasons set forth infra, we conclude that the amendment to § 52 was plainly designed to give juveniles a "second chance" with regard to a "first offense of a misdemeanor" that carries a maximum punishment of six months' imprisonment or a fine (six months or less misdemeanor). In other words, the Legislature intended to excuse a juvenile's first isolated instance of such misconduct. This means that the Juvenile Court may not exercise jurisdiction where the juvenile's first offense is one such misdemeanor. Once a juvenile has committed his or her "first offense," however, the Juvenile Court may exercise jurisdiction over all other offenses not otherwise excluded under § 52, including subsequent six months or less misdemeanors. We further conclude that, consistent with the purpose of the statute and the rule of lenity, the term "first offense" under § 52 means a first adjudication of delinquency.

         We recognize, however, that, as a practical matter, this interpretation presents certain challenges. Because the statute excludes a "first offense" of a six months or less misdemeanor from the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court, it is difficult to establish that a first offense has ever occurred. Indeed, where a juvenile's commission of a six months or less misdemeanor constitutes his or her "first offense," it would be dismissed under § 52 before ever reaching the adjudicatory stage of the proceeding. Because there would be no record of an adjudication of delinquency, every subsequent commission of a six months or less misdemeanor would seemingly have to be dismissed as a "first offense" under § 52. As we conclude that the Legislature did not intend to create this type of "Catch-22" situation, but rather intended to excuse only a first offense while providing the Juvenile Court with jurisdiction over repeat juvenile offenders, we define here the means by which a first offense, even one that did not result in a prior delinquency adjudication, may be proved and recorded such that the Juvenile Court may exercise jurisdiction over subsequent offenses.

         Accordingly, the case is remanded to the county court for entry of a judgment vacating the order denying the juvenile's motion to dismiss the delinquency complaint and remanding the matter to the Juvenile Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.[1]'[2]

         Background.

         For the purposes of this appeal, the parties agreed to the following facts. In late August 2018, the juvenile was arrested for operating a motor vehicle without a license in violation of G. L. c. 90, § 10. Following the juvenile's arrest, the arresting officer filed an application for a delinquency complaint. The court activity record information (CARI) database revealed that the juvenile had a court history that included several dismissed drug charges, a dismissed charge of operating a motor vehicle without authority, and an open case for breaking and entering in the nighttime with the intent to commit a felony. Probable cause had been found on one or more of these previous charges. A delinquency complaint on the new charge subsequently issued, and the juvenile was scheduled for arraignment.

         Prior to arraignment, the juvenile moved to dismiss the complaint under G. L. c. 119, § 52, arguing that because he did not have any prior delinquency adjudications, and because the maximum punishment for unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle is a fine, see G. L. c. 90, § 20, the charge was a "first offense of a misdemeanor" under § 52. Accordingly, he argued, the Juvenile Court did not have jurisdiction over the matter. The motion judge disagreed, concluding that the new charge was not the juvenile's "first offense" under the statute because a clerk-magistrate had made a prior finding of probable cause on at least one of the juvenile's prior offenses. The judge denied the motion to dismiss the complaint and proceeded with the arraignment.

         The juvenile thereafter filed a petition for relief in the county court, pursuant to G. L. c. 211, § 3; the single justice ...


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