Juvenile Court Oversteps Bounds

Pennsylvania appellate judges have described the express purpose of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act as that of “seeking treatment, reformation and rehabilitation, and not to punish. To this end, the juvenile court system was designed to provide a distinctive procedure and appropriate setting to deal with the problems of youth.” Juvenile proceedings are closed to the public to protect the privacy of juveniles. However, all juveniles have an absolute right of appeal from a closed-hearing adjudication of delinquency.

In a recent case, a school girl was charged with criminal mischief and simple assault because she rushed through the right side of a set of double glass doors as she left school to catch her bus at the end of the school day. The girl passed a special needs student (seriously handicapped by scoliosis and spina bifida) who was accompanied by a service dog. The door that the girl rushed through struck the dog on its flank, knocking it over, and also struck the special needs student in the back. The special needs student fell on top of the dog. The dog suffered a torn ligament from the incident, and the special needs student required a course of over‑the‑counter pain relievers and chiropractic treatment.

Admonishing the prosecution for bringing criminal juvenile charges for the incident, the appeals court found that the girl charged with the crimes was a good student and was well liked by her teachers. She had received academic awards on several occasions and was planning to attend college. She had been employed, but had stopped working at her mother’s request in order to improve her grades. She had never before had contact with the police, was reportedly drug- and alcohol-free, did not smoke, and was not sexually active. The court further noted that the girl resided with her mother, did specific chores at home, and observed a curfew of 10 p.m. She was in need of and received psychological services for anxiety, depression, and insomnia only after the commencement of the criminal prosecution.

The court dismissed the charge of criminal mischief because the crime requires proof of intentional or reckless conduct that causes more than $500 in damages. No such damages were proved by the prosecution. The court went on to dismiss the simple assault charge, finding that criminal liability requires “gross criminal negligence,” and that the girl’s rushing for her bus did not amount to gross criminal negligence.

Acknowledging that the girl acted impulsively and “was at least inconsiderate, at worst callous,” the court held that none of those lapses rose to the level of criminality.

Increasingly, schools and law enforcement refer children to juvenile court. If your family becomes involved in juvenile proceedings, be sure to retain competent counsel to protect your child’s rights. Not all careless conduct is criminal, and an adjudication of delinquency can place heavy burdens on a young person. A child in juvenile proceedings should be represented by counsel and should understand his or her right to appeal.

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