Update: On February 17, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down the state’s petition.
On August 25, 2016, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in State v. Hand, 2016-Ohio-5504. In a 4-3 opinion written by Justice Lanzinger, joined by Justices O’Neill, Pfeifer, and Chief Justice O’Connor, the court held that it is unconstitutional to use a juvenile adjudication as the equivalent of an adult conviction to enhance a penalty for a later crime. Justice O’Donnell dissented, joined by Justices Kennedy and French. Read an analysis of the merit decision here.
Statute Struck Down
R.C. 2901.08(A) (A prior “adjudication as a delinquent child or as a juvenile traffic offender is a conviction for a violation of the law or ordinance” in determining (1) the offense an individual can be charged with, and/or (2) the sentenced imposed for the offense.)
When Adrian L. Hand, Jr. was a juvenile, he was adjudicated delinquent for aggravated robbery, a first degree felony if committed by an adult. As an adult, Hand pled no contest to three first degree felonies and two second degree felonies, all with three-year firearm specifications attached. The state argued that Hand must receive a six year mandatory sentence based on his prior juvenile adjudication. Hand contended that only three years of his sentence were mandatory since his prior adjudication was not an adult conviction. The trial court agreed with the state and Hand was sentenced to a mandatory six-year prison term. The Second District Court of Appeals affirmed, in a split decision. The Supreme Court of Ohio reversed the lower courts.
In Apprendi v. New Jersey, 544 U.S. 466 (2000), the U.S. Supreme Court held that “other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” (emphasis added.) So the question in the Hand case is whether a nonjury juvenile adjudication is fairly characterized as a prior conviction. There is a circuit split on this issue among the federal courts. The majority of circuits that have considered the question (in the context of the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. 942(e)), including the Sixth Circuit, have held that nonjury juvenile adjudications can be characterized as prior convictions without running afoul of due process. These circuits found that juvenile adjudications have enough procedural safeguards to make them sufficiently reliable to satisfy the Apprendi exception even without the right to a jury trial. But the Supreme Court of Ohio found the reasoning in United States v. Tighe, 266 F.3d 1187 (9th Cir. 2001) more persuasive. Tighe held that a prior juvenile adjudication could not be used as a sentence enhancement because it had not been proven by the state to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
State supreme courts that have considered this issue are also divided, but most follow the federal circuit majority view, and reject the reasoning in Tighe. In Hand, Ohio joins the minority viewpoint. On November 23, 2016, the state filed a cert. petition to try and get the case in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Whether the absence of the right to trial by jury in juvenile delinquency proceedings results in a juvenile adjudication falling outside the prior-conviction exception set out in Apprendi v. New Jersey.
The state emphasized the fact that of all the federal circuits that have considered the issue, only the Ninth has taken the position adopted by the Supreme Court of Ohio. All that is constitutionally required in juvenile court proceedings is fundamental fairness in the factfinding process, and that is more than met by the plethora of procedural protections afforded to juveniles including the right to notice, the right to counsel, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, the right to introduce evidence on his or her own behalf, the privilege against self-incrimination, protection against double jeopardy, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. All of that ensures the reliability Apprendi requires, despite the absence of a jury trial in delinquency proceedings. A majority of state supreme courts that have considered the issue agree with this view as well. The Supreme Court of Ohio is in a distinct minority on this issue. The state asks the U.S. Supreme Court to grant review to resolve the split of authority on this issue.
In response, Hand notes that that the Court has denied at least nineteen petitions raising the same question as presented here, and should do so again, and that in addition, the Supreme Court of Ohio correctly decided the matter.