Oral Argument Preview: Court Again Tackles Constitutionality of Mandatory Juvenile Transfer Statutes. State of Ohio v. Matthew Aalim.

Further Update: On May 25, 2017, the Supreme Court of Ohio granted reconsideration in this case, and reversed it.  Read the analysis of the new merit decision here.

Update: On December 22, 2016, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in this case. Read the analysis here.

Read the analysis of the argument here.

On April 20, 2016, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of State of Ohio v. Matthew Aalim.  At issue in this case is whether the mandatory transfer of juveniles to adult court is a violation of the due process and equal protection clauses of both State and Federal Constitutions. The same constitutional challenge was made in 2014 in State v. Quarterman, 2014-Ohio-4034. But the court did not decide the constitutional issues in that case because Quarterman failed to raise them below or demonstrate plain error. Read more about Quarterman here.

The Aalim case will be argued at Meigs High School in Meigs County, as part of the court’s off-site program.

Case Background

Sixteen-year-old Appellant Matthew Aalim robbed two women at gunpoint. Because of his age, the gun, and the nature of the offense, Aalim’s transfer from juvenile court to adult court was mandatory.  There, he plead no contest to two counts of aggravated robbery. Aalim was then sentenced to two concurrent four-year terms of imprisonment. Aalim subsequently appealed his sentence based on violations of his due process, equal protection, and rights against cruel and unusual punishment. In an opinion authored by Judge Fain, joined by Judges Hall and Donovan, the Second District unanimously held that Aalim’s transfer to adult court was not in violation of any constitutional rights, and upheld the sentencing. In a short separate concurrence, Judge Donovan urged the Supreme Court of Ohio to take this case.

Key Precedent

R.C. 2152.10(A)(2)(b) (Transfer is mandatory for offenses by juveniles involving a firearm)

R.C. 2152.12(A)(1)(b) (Transfer is mandatory for certain offenses if the child is sixteen or seventeen at the time of the act charged.)

Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966). (The waiver of a juvenile to adult court is “critically important” to review prior to the transfer because of the liberty deprivations at stake. Before a court imposes a transfer it must consider eight factors in order to preserve due process: (1) Seriousness of the offense; (2) Violence of the offense; (3) If the offense was against persons or property; (4) Merit of the complaint; (5) Desirability of keeping the case in one court; (6) Sophistication of the juvenile; (7) Criminal history of the juvenile; (8) Prospects for successful rehabilitation.)

In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967). (Extended the Kent holding by adding that juvenile courts must comport with the due process requirements as established in the Fourteenth Amendment with an emphasis on “fundamental fairness.” Additionally, notice, counsel, and the right against self-incrimination are applicable to juveniles and adults alike.)

Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed.)

In re D.H. 2009-Ohio-9 (the court’s dispositional role is at the heart of the differences between juvenile and adult court.)

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010) (Juvenile non-homicide offenders cannot be given a sentence of life without parole).

In Re CP, 2012-Ohio-1446,  (automatic mandatory lifelong sex-offender classifications for certain juvenile sex offenders violate due process.)

In re D.W. 133 Ohio St.3d 434 (2012) (Amenability hearings may be waived so long as the waiver request is expressly stated on the record by the representing attorney, the request is made knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently, the record indicates specific factors that ultimately influenced the court’s decision to permit the waiver.)

Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012) (Children are less culpable than adults. Imposing a mandatory sentence of life without parole on a juvenile is cruel and unusual punishment and thereby violates the Eighth Amendment).

Aalim’s Argument

First, Aalim asserts that the mandatory transfer of juveniles to adult court is a violation of both his State and Federal due process rights. Specifically, Aalim should be afforded the right to have a juvenile adjudication conducted by a juvenile judge since he was 16 when he committed the offenses. The mandatory transfer statutes are unconstitutional because they do not allow for any individualized determination of the appropriateness of the transfer in a given case, nor allow the court to consider the mitigating factor of youth. In fact, mandatory transfer transforms age into an aggravating factor.  All of this violates due process.

The unique status of juvenile offenders has been increasingly recognized and acknowledged both by the U.S. Supreme Court and by Ohio jurisprudence. Children have a substantive due process right in their status as children. The court should continue to recognize that further safeguards are necessary for children because of these fundamental differences from adults.

The vital importance of a child’s liberty interest in the transfer proceeding requires heightened procedural protections.  Juvenile court judges are in the best position to determine whether a particular child deserves the chance to benefit from the rehabilitative focus of the juvenile courts.

All juveniles should be afforded an amenability hearing before being transferred to adult criminal court. The irrebuttable presumption created by the mandatory transfer statutes violates due process. At the end of the day, forcing Aalim into adult court without any consideration for his age is fundamentally unfair. Ohio’s discretionary transfer statutes provide a meaningful alternative that should be adopted instead of mandatory transfer.

Second, Aalim asserts that mandatory transfer also violates his equal protection guarantees under State and Federal law. Equal protection requires courts to treat similarly situated classes of people the same under the law. Aalim was treated drastically differently than peers just one year younger than he under the mandatory statutory scheme. From a constitutional standpoint, at both the State and Federal levels, there is no rational basis for treating a fifteen-year-old differently from a sixteen-year-old. Recent Supreme Court holdings recognize that all children under eighteen are categorically different from adults and therefore, should all be treated equally.

State’s Argument

First, the State asserts that the relevant statutory provisions are not only constitutional but necessary to counter the rapid rise in violent juvenile crime.

Regarding the due process and equal protection claims, the State asserts that there are safeguards in place. A juvenile court originally obtains jurisdiction over a crime committed by a juvenile and then holds a hearing. If the juvenile is found to have met the requirements for transfer during this hearing, then the juvenile is transferred over. Put simply, Aalim does not have a constitutional right to be tried as a juvenile. Furthermore, the very foundation of due process is the opportunity “to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.” Aalim was provided proper notice, was provided the right to counsel, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to introduce potentially exculpatory evidence.

The State goes on to distinguish recent Federal and State Supreme Court cases that cut in favor of juvenile due process rights. Specifically, Kent involved discretionary bindovers not at play in this case. In re C.P. discusses the general culpability of a child, but does not specifically address the procedural aspects to the case.

Equal protection is not an issue, as age is not the only factor determining when a transfer occurs. The court also considers the nature of the offense and circumstances surrounding the offense. Furthermore, age is not a suspect classification. So long as the State is able to demonstrate a rational basis for mandatory transfers, the statute should stand. The mandatory transfer provisions ae rationally related to the government’s interest in punishing violent juvenile offenders.

Finally, the state argues that any change in the transfer statutes must come from the legislature, not from the courts.

Aalim’s Proposed Proposition of Law I:

The mandatory transfer of juvenile offenders to adult court pursuant to R.C. 2152.10(A)(2)(b) and 2152.12(A)(1)(b) violates their right to due process as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 16, Ohio Constitution

Aalim’s Proposed Proposition of Law II:

The mandatory transfer of juvenile offenders to adult court pursuant to R.C. 2152.10(A)(2)(b) and 2152.12(A)(1)(b) violates their right to equal protection as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 2, Ohio Constitution.

State’s Proposed Counter Proposition of Law

The Statutory provisions set out in R.C. 2152.10(A)(2)(b) and 2152.12(A)(1)(b), which require juvenile courts, in certain cases, to transfer jurisdiction over juvenile offenders to the general division for trial as an adult do not violate a juvenile’s right to due process or equal protection.

Amici in Support of Aalim

Children’s Law Center (“CLC”), along with numerous other organizations supporting juvenile rights, filed an amicus brief in support of Aalim, proposing their own proposition of law: Ohio’s mandatory bindover provisions should be eliminated. These amici argue that the mandatory bindover statutes conflict with the primary goals of rehabilitating juveniles, and are based on a number of myths that have been used to justify their constitutionality. Some of these myths are that these statutes prevent recidivism, serve as a specific and a general deterrent, result in a fairer application of juvenile laws, and result in longer incarceration for certain types of juvenile offenders. The shocking disparity between races subjected to mandatory bindovers also further frustrates the justifications for mandatory transfers. These amici also argue that recent programs and bills enacted to reduce the use of mandatory bindovers, such as the Serious Youthful Offender Act and reverse waiver laws, have not been effective. Finally, various stakeholders, including the Ohio Judicial Conference, support eliminating mandatory bindovers.

The Juvenile Law Center (“JLC”) and National Juvenile Defender Center (“NJDC”) jointly filed a brief on behalf Aalim. These amici submitted their own proposition of law: Ohio’s mandatory bindover statutes are unconstitutional under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because they do not allow for individualized determinations regarding the propriety of prosecuting certain minors in adult criminal court rather than juvenile court. Mirroring Aalim’s brief, these amici assert that the scheme violates due process protections that should be afforded to all juveniles. Mandatory transfers also have severe consequences–increased recidivism, deprivation of proper rehabilitative programs, and increased collateral consequences. The amici also argue that public policy and public opinion largely oppose mandatory transfers.

Amicus in Support of the State

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office (“OAG”) asserts that the mandatory transfer structure does not violate due process or equal protection guarantees. The OAG also proposes its own proposition of law: The State’s decision to require mandatory bindover to common pleas court for youth charged with serious felonies does not violate due process or equal protection. This is because serious felonies do not warrant juvenile proceedings and amenability hearings. Furthermore, age is not a suspect class that is entitled to a higher standard of scrutiny and the compelling reasons to incarcerate dangerous felons are enough to satisfy rational-basis. Neither Aalim nor his amici offer sound reasons for reversal. The legislature has decided that certain crimes committed by certain offenders under 18 should be tried in adult court. The bindover statute is just a routine legislative classification, not one that creates an unconstitutional presumption.

Student Contributor: Austin LiPuma

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