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SJC Sets Limits on Juvenile Court’s Ability to Dismiss Prior to Arraignment

need-an-ambulance-1512594-300x196The Supreme Judicial Court recently issued a decision in Commonwealth v. Newton N., a juvenile addressing a judge’s authority to dismiss a delinquency complaint against a juvenile prior to arraignment. In its decision, the SJC vacated the dismissal of the delinquency complaint against the juvenile defendant, holding that the Juvenile Court judge did not have the authority to dismiss the “complaint before arraignment where the complaint was supported by probable cause and where the prosecutor wished to proceed to arraignment.”

The background was as follows. “[P]olice officers were dispatched to [an] apartment complex … in response to a report that a young boy … was making noise and carrying a gun.” When officers approached the boy, who was twelve years old, he “‘loudly curs[ed]’ at them…. The boy sounded ‘deranged[,] making no sense at times.’” The police escorted the boy to his home, where he “declared himself to be ‘Satan’ and said ‘we have weapons’ and ‘we are going to kill everyone.’” The police called for an ambulance so that the juvenile could be transported to a hospital for a mental evaluation. “As the juvenile waited for the ambulance, he … hit himself on the head with closed fists.” In the ambulance, “he began punching himself in the genitals with his closed fists and had to be placed in restraints. The ambulance report indicated that the juvenile had an autism diagnosis and that he had not received his morning medication.” On the basis of the juvenile’s actions that precipitated the initial report to the police, an “officer applied for and obtained a delinquency complaint from a clerk-magistrate, charging the juvenile with [several offenses, including] disorderly conduct…. The Commonwealth moved for arraignment and the juvenile moved pre-arraignment to dismiss the … complaint. The Juvenile Court judge … allowed the juvenile’s motion…. The judge noted that each of the alleged offenses included an element of specific intent. [She] concluded … that there was not sufficient evidence as to the element of intent or the element of recklessness (for the charge of disorderly conduct) to support a finding of probable cause. [She] determined, based on the juvenile’s statements and actions, that the juvenile ‘was acting in a diminished, if not psychotic state, and therefore could not have possessed the requisite mental state.’…. The judge further reasoned that the juvenile’s age … was a ‘relevant’ consideration in determining probable cause…. [She] added: ‘It is not only in the best interest of [the juvenile] but in the interest of justice to dismiss these four charges prior to arraignment. [The juvenile] is a child in need of aid.’” The Commonwealth appealed from the dismissal.

In its decision reinstating the delinquency complaint, the SJC stated, “Generally, where a complaint is supported by probable cause, the decision to proceed with the prosecution rests in the broad and exclusive discretion of the prosecutor.” The Court opined that the judge erred in several respects in evaluating the juvenile’s motion to dismiss. First, “the judge erred in finding no probable cause based on the juvenile’s inability to form the requisite intent as a result of [his] mental impairment.” In the Court’s view, issues regarding mental impairment and criminal responsibility are not “part of the probable cause calculus”; rather, they are meant to be addressed at the trial. Second, “[t]he judge … erred by considering the juvenile’s age in determining his capacity to form the requisite intent…. [T]he judge treated the juvenile’s age as if it were akin to some form of mental impairment arising from the limitations of the adolescent brain to control impulses.” Third, the judge lacked the authority to dismiss the complaint on the ground “that dismissal before arraignment would serve the best interests of the child and the interests of justice.”

Although the juvenile was not successful in this case, it goes without saying that children are a particularly vulnerable population, and that any involvement in the criminal justice system carries an extremely high potential for adverse effects on a child’s future. If your child is facing charges in Juvenile Court, you will need a criminal defense attorney who will do everything in his power to defend your child’s case and minimize any negative future consequences for your child. Daniel Cappetta is an attorney with extensive experience in both juvenile and adult criminal court. Call him for a free consultation.