Justia Juvenile Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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In 2009, when he was seventeen-and-a-half years old, appellant Michael Felder was playing in a pick-up basketball game with Andrew Williams at an outdoor court in Philadelphia. The pair were matched against brothers Jarrett and Malcolm Green. Appellant’s style of play became aggressive; an argument ensued after Williams refused to hand the ball over to the Greens. Appellant walked to the sideline and removed a .380 semiautomatic handgun from his gym bag, and shot Malcolm in the head before shooting Jarrett in the stomach and leg. A jury convicted appellant of first-degree murder and aggravated assault. Pursuant to the then-applicable mandatory sentence for first-degree murder, which also applied to juveniles, appellant was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The Superior Court vacated appellant’s judgment of sentence two years later; by then, Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) and Commonwealth v. Batts, 66 A.3d 286 (Pa. 2013) (“Batts I”) had been decided. Since appellant’s judgment of sentence was not yet final, the Superior Court determined he was entitled to the benefit of those rulings and to consideration of the Miller factors before being resentenced, and remanded the case for such proceedings. Upon remand, the court imposed a discretionary 50-years-to-life sentence for appellant’s first-degree murder conviction. On appeal to the Superior Court, appellant challenged the legality of his sentence, arguing “a 50-year minimum sentence is a de facto life sentence.” The Superior Court found that although the sentence precluded appellant from seeking parole until he was 68 years old, it was constitutional because it “was the result of an individualized and discretionary sentencing hearing[.]” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review limited to whether appellant's sentence was indeed a de facto life sentence requiring the sentencing court under Commonwealth v. Batts, 163 A.3d 410 (Pa. 2017) (“Batts II”), "[to] first find permanent incorrigibility, irreparable corruption or irretrievable depravity beyond a reasonable doubt." The Supreme Court determined Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S.Ct. 1307 (2021) "abrogates our foundational understanding in Batts II." So long as the sentence imposed is discretionary and takes into account the offender’s youth, even if it amounts to a de facto life sentence, Miller is not violated. "Because the sentencing court in the present case followed this procedure, we affirm." View "Pennsylvania v. Felder" on Justia Law

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Some time between mid-January and the early part of February 2018, K.S., a 14- year-old student at West Side Career and Technology Center (“WSCTS”), a vocational high school, heard appellant, a 15-year-old student at the school, say he “doesn’t think people deserve to live and everyone should just die.” Appellant’s second statement was made on February 20, 2018, six days after 17 high school students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were fatally shot. M.W., a 15-year-old classmate of appellant’s, overheard appellant say “[h]e wanted to beat the record of 19.” M.W. heard this statement from only two or three feet away while in the hallway between classes. Although appellant’s remark was not directed at her, M.W. was unsure whether he was “talking to someone [else], or [if] he just said it” aloud. K.S.,after learning of appellant’s “beat the record” statement secondhand, followed suit and reported what she had heard. The Commonwealth later charged appellant with terroristic threats pursuant to Section 2706(a)(1) and (3) of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, and disorderly conduct. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court observed it “remains an open question” whether the First Amendment to the United States Constitution permitted States to criminalize threats made in reckless disregard of the risk of causing fear. In this opinion, the Court resolved that issue, holding that the First Amendment tolerates a conviction — in this case, under Pennsylvania’s terroristic threats statute, for making a threatening statement even where the speaker did not intend to cause terror. However, after its de novo review of the record, the Court felt constrained to conclude the statements underlying appellant's adjudication, "though perhaps concerning to some because they were uttered in a school hallway only days after a deadly high school shooting," did not cross the constitutional threshold from protected speech to an unprotected true threat. The Court therefore vacated appellant’s adjudication of delinquency. View "In the Interest of: J.J.M." on Justia Law

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Appellant T.W. appealed a superior court order affirming a court of common pleas order denying his motion to suppress physical evidence and adjudicating Appellant delinquent for unlawful possession of a controlled substance. Appellant’s arrest for unlawful possession of a controlled substance arose from a vehicle stop and a subsequent Terry frisk. Upon frisking Appellant, a police officer of the Philadelphia Police Department felt a hard object in Appellant’s left pants pocket. Fearing that the unknown object could be a weapon, the officer reached into Appellant’s pocket and removed the object. Appellant was arrested for possessing the object and a subsequent search incident to arrest led to the discovery of a controlled substance on Appellant’s person. Before trial, Appellant made a motion to suppress the physical evidence recovered from his person, arguing that the police officer exceeded the scope of a permissible Terry frisk by reaching into Appellant’s pocket and removing an object during the frisk. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review in this matter to address the standards by which a police officer may remove an object from within a suspect’s clothing during a Terry frisk. The Court previously addressed this issue in Pennsylvania v. Taylor, 771 A.2d 1261 (Pa. 2001) (plurality). The Court's review in that case resulted in a plurality decision whereby the opinion announcing the judgment of the Court held that a police officer conducting a lawful Terry frisk could remove an object from within a suspect’s clothing if the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that the object is a weapon. "In light of the fact that Taylor did not produce a majority opinion, we reexamine the issue anew." View "In the Interest of: T.W." on Justia Law

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The events that formed the basis of Nazeer Taylor’s prosecution occurred when he was fifteen years old. In March 2014, the Commonwealth filed a delinquency petition alleging that Taylor committed numerous delinquent acts purportedly stemming from recurring incidents of sexual assault of his then-eleven-year-old foster brother, A.O. This appeal asked whether a minor’s Fifth Amendment privilege against compulsory self-incrimination was violated when a juvenile court granted the Commonwealth’s request to have a delinquency matter transferred to an adult court for criminal prosecution, based in part upon the minor’s decision not to admit culpability to the delinquent acts alleged. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court judgment and remanded for a determination, in the first instance, whether the harmless error doctrine was applicable to the juvenile court's "constitutionally deficient misapplication" of the Juvenile Act's transfer provisions, and if it was not, or if the error was not harmless, for consideration of the available relief under these circumstances. View "Pennsylvania v. Taylor" on Justia Law

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Appellant, J.M.G., was born in August 1996. From an early age, J.M.G. experienced chronic mental health issues and a series of resultant hospitalizations. Following an incident in 2013, during which he attempted to choke his adoptive mother (Mother), J.M.G. consented to a voluntary admission into Philhaven, a behavioral health facility treating children and adolescents. Thereafter, J.M.G. agreed to a voluntary admission into Bradley Center, a residential treatment facility. While at Bradley Center, J.M.G. made revelations to Mother that he had been sexually inappropriate with his adoptive sister. Mother referred the matter to Childline. A subsequent investigation resulted in J.M.G. being adjudicated delinquent for one count of misdemeanor indecent assault. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal in this case to decide whether the harmless error doctrine was applicable to determinations made by the trial court under Act 211 when the materials provided to the Sexual Offender Assessment Board (SOAB), and considered by the Commonwealth’s expert in preparing his report and rendering his opinion, erroneously contained privileged communications under 42 Pa.C.S. section 5944 of the Judicial Code, establishing psychologist-patient privilege. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the harmless error doctrine did not apply. View "In the Interest of: J.M.G." on Justia Law

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On September 20, 2010, at age of 13 appellant, H.R., was adjudicated delinquent for indecent assault of a complainant less than 13 years of age. Appellant was placed on official probation and, pursuant to Section 6352 of the Juvenile Act, was ordered to undergo inpatient treatment at a sex offender residential treatment facility. Appellant remained in treatment when he turned 20 in February 2017 and he was assessed pursuant to Section 6352, the results of which found that involuntary treatment at a sex offender residential treatment facility pursuant to the Court-Ordered Involuntary Treatment of Certain Sexually Violent Persons Statute (Act 21) was still necessary. On January 4, 2018, following a hearing, a trial court denied appellant's motion to dismiss and granted the petition for involuntary treatment, determining appellant was an sexually violent delinquent child (SVDC) and committing him to one year of mental health treatment. On appeal, appeal, appellant argued: (1) Act 21 was punitive in nature, and this its procedure for determining whether an individual was an SVDC was unconstitutional; and (2) retroactive application of amendments to Act 21 made effective in 2011, was also unconstitutional. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined the superior court correctly determined the relevant provisions of Act 21 were not punitive, were constitutional, thus, affirming the trial court's order. View "In re: H.R." on Justia Law

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Appellant Anthony Machicote argued his sentence was illegal because he was subject to a potential sentence of life without parole, and prior to imposing his sentence, the trial court did not consider the factors enumerated in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), as adopted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Batts, 66 A.3d 286 (Pa. 2013) (Batts I) and Commonwealth v. Batts (Batts II), 163 A.3d 410 (Pa. 2017). In 2003, Appellant was 17 years old and a resident at George Junior Republic, a residential treatment facility for at-risk youth. Appellant and a co-resident, Jeremy Melvin, devised a plan to subdue a night supervisor at the facility in order to escape. Appellant called the night supervisor, Wayne Urey, Jr., to his room. Melvin, who was hiding, attacked Urey from behind, put him in a chokehold, and brought him to the ground. Appellant and Melvin bound and gagged Urey, and proceeded to steal his keys, wallet, and truck. Appellant and Melvin escaped, and Urey ultimately died of suffocation. Appellant and Melvin turned themselves in later that same day. Appellant was charged with homicide, robbery, and related offenses. Appellant pled guilty to second-degree murder and the remaining charges were dismissed. Appellant was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Appellant did not appeal his sentence. The Superior Court concluded that Appellant’s challenge to his sentence was moot because he was ultimately not sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court concluded the issue was not moot, and the trial court erred when it failed to consider the Miller factors on the record when it resentenced Appellant. View "Pennsylvania v. Machicote" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to resolve inconsistencies between the Superior Court’s decisions in Commonwealth v. Kemp, 961 A.2d 1247 (Pa. Super. 2008) and Commonwealth v. Nguyen, 116 A.3d 657 (Pa. Super. 2015), specifically with regard to whether information obtained by a police officer during a lawful initial traffic stop may be used to justify re-engagement with the driver after the police officer indicates the driver is free to go, such that consent to search given during that re-engagement is valid. The Supreme Court concluded, under the circumstances of this case, the consent given was valid and suppression of evidence was not warranted. View "In the Int. of: A.A." on Justia Law

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J.B., a juvenile, appealed the Superior Court’s order affirming the juvenile court's order adjudicating him delinquent. J.B. was charged for the first-degree murder and homicide of an unborn child in connection with the shooting death of his stepmother inside their family home on the morning of February 20, 2009. J.B. argued that there was insufficient evidence to support his adjudication of delinquency beyond a reasonable doubt for these offenses, and, alternatively, that the juvenile court’s adjudication was against the weight of the evidence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court's careful review of the evidentiary record in this matter compelled its conclusion that the evidence introduced at his adjudicatory hearing was indeed insufficient, as a matter of law, to establish his delinquency for these offenses beyond a reasonable doubt. As a result, the Court reversed the Superior Court’s order which affirmed the juvenile court’s order of disposition for these offenses. View "In The Interest of J.B.; Appeal of: J.B." on Justia Law

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Appellant Qu’eed Batts was convicted of a first-degree murder that he committed when he was fourteen years old. The issue for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review was whether the sentencing court imposed an illegal sentence when it resentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After careful review, the Court concluded, based on the findings made by the sentencing court and the evidence upon which it relied, that the sentence was illegal in light of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016). Pursuant to its grant of allowance of appeal, the Court further concluded that to effectuate the mandate of Miller and Montgomery, procedural safeguards were required to ensure that life-without-parole sentences were meted out only to “the rarest of juvenile offenders” whose crimes reflected “permanent incorrigibility,” “irreparable corruption” and “irretrievable depravity,” as required by Miller and Montgomery. The Pennsylvania Court recognized a presumption against the imposition of a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender. To rebut the presumption, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is incapable of rehabilitation. View "Pennsylvania v. Batts" on Justia Law