Ohio Supreme Court Holds that Prior Juvenile Adjudications are not Prior “Convictions” for Subsequent Adult Offenses

Ohio Revised Code section 2901.08(A) states:

If a person is alleged to have committed an offense and if the person previously has been adjudicated a delinquent child or juvenile traffic offender for a violation of a law or ordinance, except as provided in division (B) of this section, the adjudication as a delinquent child or as a juvenile traffic offender is a conviction for a violation of the law or ordinance for purposes of determining the offense with which the person should be charged and, if the person is convicted of or pleads guilty to an offense, the sentence to be imposed upon the person relative to the conviction or guilty plea.

Thus, for many years, prior juvenile court adjudications (delinquency findings) were used to enhance the degree or punishment for future offenses committed as an adult. An example of this would be the offense of Domestic Violence, which ordinarily would be a misdemeanor of the 1st degree, but becomes a felony of the 4th degree with one prior conviction and a felony of the 3rd degree with two prior convictions. Another example would be the OVI statute, where although the first several violations are ordinarily misdemeanors of the 1st degree, the punishment increases with each subsequent offense. Once a person has 3-4 prior OVI convictions within the preceding 6 years or 5 or more OVI convictions within the past 20 years, the degree of the offense would be increased to a felony of the 4th degree.

This created the seemingly unjust scenario whereby a prior juvenile court adjudication for Domestic Violence committed at age 10 could be used to enhance a subsequent offense at age 85, increasing it from a misdemeanor of the 1st degree to a felony of the 4th degree.

Fortunately, the Ohio Supreme Court finally put that practice to rest when it invalidated R.C. 2901.08 in the case of Ohio v. Hand, decided on August 25, 2016.

In reaching its decision, the Court noted:

{¶ 14} Juvenile courts hold a “unique place in our legal system.” In re C.S., 115 Ohio St.3d 2672007-Ohio-4919874 N.E.2d 1177, ¶ 65. They are legislative creatures that “eschewed traditional, objective criminal standards and retributive notions of justice.” Id. at ¶ 66. The overriding purposes for juvenile dispositions “are to provide for the care, protection, and mental and physical development of children subject to [R.C. Chapter 2152], protect the public interest and safety, hold the offender accountable for the offender’s actions, restore the victim, and rehabilitate the offender.” R.C. 2152.01(A). In contrast, the purposes of felony sentencing “are to protect the public from future crime by the offender and others and to punish the offender.” R.C. 2929.11(A). In summary, juvenile adjudication differs from criminal sentencing-one is civil and rehabilitative, the other is criminal and punitive.

The Court based its decision on the fact that in juvenile delinquency proceedings, juveniles generally do not have the right to a jury trial, and that the right to a jury trial is an essential right of criminal defendants.

{¶ 33} The right to a jury trial “is no mere procedural formality, but a fundamental reservation of power in our constitutional structure.” Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 305-306, 124 S.Ct. 2531, 159 L.Ed.2d 403 (2004). “[T]he Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee a jury standing between a defendant and the power of the State, and they guarantee a jury’s finding of any disputed fact essential to increase the ceiling of a potential sentence.” Shepard v. United States, 544 U.S. 13, 25, 125 S.Ct. 1254, 161 L.Ed.2d 205 (2005) (plurality opinion). That is, the jury- trial right is not primarily focused on the reliability of the jury’s conclusions drawn from the facts, but rather on preventing the state from drawing conclusions from the facts without using a jury.

{¶ 34} Given the United States Supreme Court’s emphatic pronouncements on the importance of the right to a jury trial, it is logical to conclude that the court meant to limit the prior-conviction exception to prior proceedings that satisfied the jury-trial guarantee. Because a juvenile adjudication is not established through a procedure that provides the right to a jury trial, it cannot be used to increase a sentence beyond a statutory maximum or mandatory minimum.

{¶ 38} Treating a juvenile adjudication as an adult conviction to enhance a sentence for a later crime is inconsistent with Ohio’s system for juveniles, which is predicated on the fact that children are not as culpable for their acts as adults and should be rehabilitated rather than punished. It is widely recognized that juveniles are more vulnerable to outside pressures, including the pressure to admit to an offense. Under Apprendi, using a prior conviction to enhance a sentence does not violate the constitutional right to due process, because the prior process involved the right to a jury trial. Juveniles, however, are not afforded the right to a jury trial. Quite simply, a juvenile adjudication is not a conviction of a crime and should not be treated as one.

If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges based upon the now-prohibited use of a prior juvenile court adjudication to enhance an adult charge, contact Jonathan Horwitz, an experienced Criminal Law and Juvenile Law Attorney serving clients throughout Warren, Montgomery, and Greene Counties.