Law used to prosecute juveniles as adults ruled unconstitutional

The Nevada Supreme Court on Wednesday threw out a state law used to prosecute juveniles charged with serious crimes in adult court, saying the statute violated their constitutional right against self-incrimination.

Under the presumptive certification law, juveniles 14 or older charged with gun crimes and violent sex crimes were automatically sent to adult court unless they could show that substance abuse, or emotional or behavioral problems led to the crimes. But in making that connection the juveniles admitted to the crimes, which could be used against them in future court hearings.

The law’s “requirement that a juvenile admit the charged criminal conduct, and thereby incriminate himself, in order to overcome the presumption of adult supervision is unconstitutional,” the court wrote in its unanimous ruling.

The high court also reversed a 1995 decision that said Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination did not apply in juvenile certification hearings because guilt was not being determined.

Despite Wednesday’s decision, juveniles charged with serious crimes can still be sent to adult court using discretionary certification, which requires approval from a judge after prosecutors make their case based on factors such as the seriousness of the crime, the threat to public safety and the juvenile’s criminal history.

Defense lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada hailed the court’s decision.

“This is an important and sweeping decision for Nevada’s juvenile justice system,” said Lee Rowland, an ACLU lawyer who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

The National Juvenile Defender Center in Washington, D.C., and the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia also filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of two Las Vegas teens represented by defense lawyer Kristina Wildeveld.

Other states with presumptive certification laws either don’t require the juvenile to show a connection to the crime or prohibit an admission of the crime for certification hearings from being used against the juvenile, Rowland said.

She said she expected the law to be revisited during the 2009 legislative session.

Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn, in praising the ruling, said the law “put juveniles in a horrible situation. If you wanted to avoid going to adult court, you had to admit to things that would be used against you later.”

Meanwhile, the head of the Clark County district attorney’s office juvenile division expressed disappointment.

“We consider it an unfortunate ruling for victims and public safety,” Mary Brown said. “We’re talking about violent felonies with firearms. We’re not talking about misdemeanors or auto burglaries.”

The Supreme Court decision stemmed from two 2006 armed robbery cases.

William Molina, then 17, was charged with acting as a lookout during a holdup at a Roberto’s taco shop.

He had a history of alcohol abuse, drug use and mental illness, but he was certified as an adult because he denied being involved in the crime, according to court documents.

Molina, now 19, was being held in the Clark County Detention Center while his case was pending.

The other teen, Marques Butler, was also 17 when he was charged with taking part in the armed robbery of two people in a park.

He had a history of drug use, learning disabilities and an IQ of 74, which is the “borderline range of intellectual functioning,” according to the court’s decision. He said he did not take part in the crime, so he was transferred to adult court.

He was released on house arrest while his case was pending.

Both cases were expected to move back to juvenile court.

Wildeveld said the court’s ruling gives elected judges the power to evaluate cases on their own merits before sending juveniles to adult court. Many juvenile cases that go to adult court end in probation, which doesn’t give troubled teens the treatment and supervision they need to turn their lives around, she said.

Under the presumptive certification law judges had little discretion in deciding whether certain teens were better served in juvenile court, where they can be more closely monitored and access treatment services, she said.

Brown of the district attorney’s office said most cases that went to adult court under presumptive certification would still be transferred using discretionary certification.

“The state’s position is when you hold up someone with a gun and you’re 16 and you have priors, you belong in adult court,” Brown said.

About 80 juveniles in Clark County were certified as adults in 2007, and about half of those were presumptively certified, she said.

Kohn, the public defender, said adult courts should be reserved for the worst offenders. Most teens and children are best served in juvenile court, where they have better access to treatment and where rehabiliation, not punishment, is the top priority, he said.

Wednesday’s decision should send any pending cases back to juvenile court, where they would face another certification hearing, he said. His office was reviewing cases that have already ended in convictions for possible appeals.

Contact reporter Brian Haynes at or 702-383-0281.

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