What happens if an adult is accused of a crime allegedly committed when he was a juvenile?
I periodically get calls from people (adults) who have been accused of committing a crime when they were teenagers. This scenario usually involves an accusation of sexual assault. Often this adult hasn’t been charged yet; he has only heard of the accusation through the police or someone else. My first instruction is not to respond in any way to the accusation which includes not talking to the police. The only person they should be talking to about this is a lawyer. We then meet and I start by making the determination whether the statute of limitations has expired. A statute of limitations puts a limit on how many years can pass until a legal action is forbidden. This is not as straightforward as it sounds and the client may not have all the information that I need to make the final determination. To figure out if the statute of limitations has expired, I need to know the year that his alleged incident took place, the age of the alleged victim at the time of the incident, and whether my client has moved out of state during the years that have passed since the alleged incident an present. With this information I can determine whether prosecution against my client is permitted or if too much time has passed.
If the statute of limitations has not expired and the person being accused was under 18 at the time of the alleged offense (so he would be within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court), then this adult will face charges in the juvenile court despite being too old to be prosecuted in that court. Mass. General Laws chapter 119, section 72A applies to cases where an individual is alleged to have committed an offense prior to his 18th birthday but is not apprehended un til a ft er his 19th birthday.
The case starts with a delinquency complaint against the adult in juvenile court where a hearing will be held for a judge to determine whether: 1) there is probable cause to believe the individual committed the crime and, if so; 2) it is in the public interest to have the individual tried as an adult in the district or superior court. These hearings are commonly known as “transfer hearings” because the juvenile court judge is deciding whether to transfer the juvenile court’s jurisdiction over crimes perpetrated by juvenile defendants to a court with jurisdiction over adults. These hearings are also known as “72A hearings.”
After a hearing with witnesses the juvenile court can discharge the complaint if the judge is “sa ti sfied that such discharge is consistent with the protection of the public” which means that the adult cannot be prosecuted in the district or superior court. Alternatively, the juvenile court can dismiss the juvenile complaint and transfer the individual to the adult court “if the court is of the opinion that the interests of the public require that such person be tried for such offense or viola ti on instead of being discharged.
If transferred, the juvenile court complaint is dismissed, a criminal complaint issues, and the case proceeds in the usual course of criminal proceedings against adults. The adult who committed the offense as a juvenile faces the same consequences as an adult who committed the offense at an older age and does not have any of the considerations given to juveniles prosecuted in the juvenile court for the same offenses. For example, an adult charged with committing aggravated rape of a child as a teenager whose case has been transferred and indicted in the superior court would face the same mandatory minimum prison sentence and mandatory sex offender registration if convicted as any other adult in the superior court convicted of the same crime. Had that adult been charged when he was a teenager and under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, he would not face the mandatory minimum and sex offender registration could be waived by the trial judge.
Recently a judge in the Massachusetts Juvenile Court discharged the delinquency complaint that issued against my client. My client is a man in his 30’s accused of committing sexual assault when he was a teenager. Following an evidentiary hearing, which included me presenting testimony by a forensic psychologist with expertise in sex offender risk assessment, the judge issued a ruling discharging the complaint. This means that my client cannot be charged in a court with jurisdiction over adults for an offense he is accused of committing as a teenager.