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State v. J.C.

Supreme Court of West Virginia

May 17, 2019

J.C. Juvenile below, Petitioner

          Submitted: January 16, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Berkeley County The Honorable Laura Faircloth, Judge Case No. 17-JD-30

          Matthew Brummond, Esq. Public Defender Services Charleston, West Virginia Counsel for the Petitioner

          Patrick Morrisey, Esq. Attorney General Lindsay S. See, Esq. Solicitor General Gordon L. Mowen, II., Esq. Assistant Attorney General Charleston, West Virginia Counsel for the State of West Virginia


         "Moot questions or abstract propositions, the decision of which would avail nothing in the determination of controverted rights of persons or of property, are not properly cognizable by a court." Syl. Pt. 1, State ex rel. Lilly v. Carter, 63 W.Va. 684, 60 S.E. 873 (1908).



         In the instant case, the circuit court found a juvenile accused of delinquency not competent to proceed. "It is a fundamental guaranty of due process that a defendant cannot be tried or convicted for a crime while he or she is mentally incompetent." Syl. Pt. 5, in part, State v. Hatfield, 186 W.Va. 507, 413 S.E.2d 162 (1991). The Legislature has adopted various statutes to allow adult criminal defendants to be evaluated and treated for competency.[1] The Legislature has rightly and vigorously protected this fundamental right for adult criminal defendants. The same cannot be said for a juvenile who faces an accusation of delinquency. The Legislature has not created any statutory procedure to protect a juvenile's due process right to competency. As we discuss below, we call upon the Legislature to create a process to address the unique competency and mental health needs of juveniles facing delinquency proceedings, to protect those children who do not understand the adversarial process being brought against them by the State.

         In the vacuum created by the absence of legislation, the circuit court applied a competency statute designed to address adult defendants and not juveniles. Under that statute, the court placed the juvenile in a mental health facility for a period of thirty-five years, as though the juvenile was an adult. The juvenile appeals that ruling. However, evidence suggests that the juvenile has since been restored to competency. As we discuss below, this new evidence renders the juvenile's appellate arguments moot.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         In February 2017, petitioner J.C. was seventeen years old. The State alleged in a juvenile petition that on February 6, 2017, J.C. "did unlawfully, feloniously and forcibly engage in sexual contact" with a ten-year-old child. That same day, law enforcement officers detained J.C. and, at least twice, advised him of his right to remain silent. J.C. nevertheless admitted to some form of sexual activity with the ten-year old, so the officers formally took him into custody.

         A lawyer was appointed to represent J.C. at his February 6th emergency detention hearing. Before the hearing, J.C.'s lawyer spoke with the arresting law enforcement officer, and the officer expressed concerns about J.C.'s mental capacity. The lawyer also spoke with J.C.'s parents who told the lawyer that J.C. "was extremely slow and may not understand the nature of the charges" against him. The lawyer then met with J.C. and likewise became concerned about J.C.'s mental acuity.

         The circuit court ordered J.C. detained at a juvenile center. Shortly thereafter, both a case manager and an education specialist at the juvenile center expressed concerns that J.C. did not understand the legal proceeding brought against him. They noted that J.C.'s most recent evaluations showed a low verbal comprehension score and low perceptual reasoning score, as well as a full scale IQ of 70. Seventeen-year-old J.C.'s achievement scores were at a third-grade level.

         Based upon these concerns, J.C.'s lawyer filed a motion for an evaluation of J.C.'s competency. The State joined in the motion for a competency evaluation, noting, "[t]he State has been made aware of the same concerns involving the Juvenile." The circuit court ordered an examination to determine if J.C. was competent to stand trial.

         A licensed psychologist evaluated J.C. and opined that J.C. "is not Competent to Stand Trial." The psychologist concluded in her report, "[t]he conditions underlying his lack of competency will not change in the foreseeable future, and thus, he will not regain competency."[2]

         In an order dated July 13, 2017, the circuit court accepted the competency evaluation and found that J.C. "is incompetent to stand trial and not likely to regain competence." Moreover, the circuit court accepted two stipulations by J.C.'s lawyer: that J.C. could have been convicted of first degree sexual assault (see W.Va. Code § 61-8B-3 (2006)), and that the charge against J.C. "involved an act of violence against a person[.]"

         Even though J.C. was a juvenile subject to the court's juvenile jurisdiction, the parties agreed that the circuit court's disposition of J.C. was controlled by a statute addressing the pretrial competency of an adult criminal defendant, West Virginia Code § 27-6A-3 (2007).[3] To simplify our discussion, we refer to this statute as "Section 3." Section 3 repeatedly uses the word defendant, and often in the context of a defendant who has been indicted or charged for a crime involving an act of violence against a person. Paragraph (h) of Section 3 provides that if a court finds a defendant is not competent to stand trial and not likely to attain competency, then the circuit court shall calculate the "maximum sentence" the defendant could have received if he or she had been convicted. See W.Va. Code ยง 27-6A-3(h). The circuit court must then order the defendant committed to a mental health facility. Paragraph (h) of Section 3 dictates that the defendant remains in the ...

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