SALEM — Legislators did not intend to decriminalize misdemeanors for juveniles when they passed a sweeping criminal justice reform law last year, the state's highest court found on Friday in the case of a North Shore teen.

The Supreme Judicial Court, in a 26-page decision, rejected an argument by lawyers from the state's public defender agency that lawmakers intended to "phase out" prosecutions entirely for lower-level crimes, like shoplifting or driving offenses, when it created a provision in the law requiring Juvenile Court judges to dismiss all first-time offenses.

But the court also concluded that a Salem Juvenile Court judge should not have denied a motion to dismiss the teen's case on the basis that there was a probable cause finding in an earlier case. 

Until the "ambiguous" language in the law is amended, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded, prosecutors will now be required to prove to a judge beyond a reasonable doubt that a juvenile has committed a prior offense — one that was previously dismissed — before they can prosecute him or her on a subsequent charge. 

It's not entirely clear how prosecutors will do that — or even how they would learn of prior arrests, given that the prior cases would not show up on any criminal history. 

The decision came in the case of "Wallace W.," a teenager arrested last August on the North Shore on a charge of driving without a license.

The following month, the teen's lawyer asked Salem Juvenile Court Judge Kathryn Phelan-Brown to dismiss the charge against her client, and to expunge the record of his arraignment, citing the recent change in the law. 

As now written, the law requires dismissal of any first offense of a misdemeanor carrying a sentence of six months or less, or a fine. 

The problem, several SJC justices, including Justice Scott Kafker, noted, was that it creates a situation where, given the lack of adjudication of a charge, every subsequent offense would essentially become a "first offense," subject to immediate dismissal.

"Consequently, if, as the juvenile argues, a 'first offense' ... cannot occur unless there is a prior adjudication of delinquency, and there can never be a final adjudication over the first offense because there is no jurisdiction, the statute would, in effect, create a 'Catch-22' and effectively eliminate these misdemeanors as predicates for delinquency adjudications altogether," Kafker wrote for the court in Friday's decision. 

Back in September, Phelan-Brown denied the request to dismiss the case as a first offense, finding that "Wallace" had previously been arrested and that probable cause had been found on a prior case, so it was not a first offense. 

His lawyer, Lauren Russell of the Committee for Public Counsel Services Youth Advocacy Division, appealed. 

She and fellow CPCS attorney Peter Hahn argued in April that far from being unintentional, the language in the criminal justice reform act was "a key provision," aimed at keeping children out of the criminal justice system for as long as possible. 

That, Hahn told the court, was the Legislature's intent. The law, Hahn argued in April, was intended to change the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court. 

One-time pass or something more?

But prosecutors in Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett's office argued that the aim of the law was to give first-time juvenile offenders a one-time "pass" to avoid a criminal record, not a "wholesale exclusion" from accountability for any misdemeanor. 

Several of the justices appeared to share that view, questioning why, if it was their intention to decriminalize the misdemeanors, the Legislature did not specifically cite that category of offense in the law, as they did with civil infractions and municipal ordinance or bylaw violations. 

Assistant district attorney Catherine Semel and the Juvenile Court prosecutor, Heidi Sylvanowicz, argued that a prior finding of probable cause should suffice to show that a juvenile has committed a prior offense. 

But the SJC rejected that rationale as well, instead requiring that prosecutors meet the full standard for a criminal conviction by convincing a judge beyond a reasonable doubt that a juvenile committed the prior crime. 

"We conclude that the Juvenile Court judge erred in deciding that a probable cause finding in a prior case was sufficient to establish that the (current) complaint is not the juvenile's 'first offense' of a six months or less misdemeanor," under the statute, Kafker wrote. "A 'first offense' must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt to have occurred."

"The Legislature intended to excuse an isolated instance of more minor misdemeanor-level misconduct, not multiple misdemeanors, or a minor misdemeanor that follows more serious misconduct," Kafker wrote. "It would make little sense, and indeed contravene the Legislature's intent, for a juvenile who had previously been adjudicated delinquent on one or more felonies, or one or more serious misdemeanors, to have a six-months-or-less misdemeanor dismissed as a 'first offense.'"

The court noted that prosecutors might have an easier task in the current case because the teen also has another open, unrelated case of breaking and entering in the nighttime with intent to commit a felony. 

The court vacated Phelan-Brown's decision and returned the case to Juvenile Court for further hearing. 

Closing the loophole

Carrie Kimball, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said that the SJC ruling "does provide a method to address this loophole," a loophole her office believes was unintentional. 

"We believe it's clear that their intention was not decriminalization, but to allow juveniles to have a second chance," said Kimball. "That is an intention we share and we have longstanding juvenile and youthful diversion programs in place, with accountability and services to encourage young people to move away from behaviors that bring them to court." 

David Rangaviz filed a friend of the court brief in the case on behalf of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"The court seems to have charted a middle ground, crafting a pre-arraignment evidentiary hearing procedure out of whole cloth, that is mentioned nowhere in the statute," he said.  

Rangaviz called the court's decision "thoughtful," adding, "This seems like a reasonable course of action, from MACDL's perspective, so long as juveniles receive all of the procedural protections they would be entitled to if that 'first offense' were actually adjudicated in a prior proceeding."

For his part, Salem Rep. Paul Tucker, the city's former police chief and an attorney, said it was not his intent as a legislator to eliminate a whole category of offenses for juveniles. 

"I don't believe it was ever our intent to decriminalize (those offenses)," said Tucker, who has co-sponsored a bill that would partially address the language of the statute. That bill is now in committee. 

At the same time, he's an advocate for keeping children and teens out of the court system for as long as possible. 

"The longer we can keep juveniles out of the system, the better chance we have going forward," Tucker said. 

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. 

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