In Re D.M.: When Can You Dismiss a Juvenile Case for “Social Reasons”?

by Jamison Koehler on August 12, 2012

The problem with using a canon of statutory interpretation to justify a legal opinion is that you can usually find some other canon to arrive at the exact opposite conclusion. For example, to support its recent holding in In Re D.M.47 A.3d 539 (D.C. 2012), the D.C. Court of Appeals used the rule that, whenever possible, different provisions within a statute should be construed to achieve consistency. The Court could have come to a different conclusion had it applied the “rule of lenity,” which stands for the principle that any ambiguities in statutory language should be resolved in favor of the defendant.  It could also have based its holding on the principle that the words in a statute should be given their plain meaning, unless that plain meaning would result in absurdity. But no. You decide where you want to end up, then you find a canon that will get you there.

The issue in D.M. had to do with the timeframe for dismissing a juvenile case for “social reasons.” Prior to 2004, juvenile cases in D.C. could be dismissed at any time during the proceedings on a finding by the court, by clear and convincing evidence, that the juvenile was not in need of care and rehabilitation. This was achieved through a so-called “Motion to Dismiss for Social Reasons.”

The idea makes a lot of sense. Kids do stupid things. Why mess up a promising future over one such mistake? Why gum up the system with kids who really need to be slapped on the wrist and sent home? Why not get them out of the system as soon as it becomes apparent to the court that they are not in need of supervision?

Then people complained that too many of these cases were being dismissed. There was the concern that juveniles – particularly serial offenders of minor offenses – were not being held accountable for their actions. The D.C. City Council thus amended the statute to limit the opportunity for the court to consider a Motion to Dismiss to “at or after disposition.”

The “at or after disposition” language is pretty clear, and it appears in two different places:  (1) Section 2317(d)(2) of the D.C. Family Division Proceedings, and (2) D.C. Superior Court Juvenile Rule 48(b).  According to Rule 48(b), for example, “[a]t or after a disposition hearing, the judicial officer may dismiss a petition and terminate the proceedings relating to the respondent, if the judicial officer finds by clear and convincing evidence that the child is not in need of care or rehabilitation.”

In 2010, a group of Georgetown law students supervised by Kristin Henning filed a Rule 48(b) motion to dismiss for social reasons on behalf of a juvenile a week before his probation was scheduled to expire. The juvenile appeared to be a perfect candidate for dismissal. The only problem was that he had already been adjudicated delinquent at the time the motion was filed.

The question for the court in D.M. was whether or not the trial court had the authority to dismiss the petition and terminate the proceeding after a child had been adjudicated delinquent. The conclusion it came to, despite clear language in two separate sections of D.C. law, is that the trial court did not have this authority. Specifically, the court held that, once a child has been adjudicated delinquent and put on probation, termination of the probation by statute can only be made “by the Director of Social Services or the agency providing supervision.”  In other words, the trial court does not authority to terminate the probation. In addition, once a child has been adjudicated delinquent and a judgment has been entered to that effect, “[d]ismissal of the government’s petition after a proper formal adjudication has been pursued to completion, would be contrary to basic notions of the finality of judgments.”

The court expressed bafflement that the words “or after” were inserted into one part of the statute and not another:  “There is no indication, in the Committee Report or elsewhere, as to why these two words . . . were added to subsection (d)(2), or why the same change was not made to subsection (d)(3).”  It concluded, as the government had argued, that City Council must have been contemplating situations in which the “dispositional component of a juvenile proceeding” extended beyond a single hearing.

Such a conclusion, the court held, would “give some meaning to the words, ‘or after,’ without doing violence to the overall statutory scheme and the Council’s expressed purpose in amending the statute to limit judges’ authority to truncate the process of juvenile adjudication.”   Moreover, juveniles who performed well on probation, like D.M., could still avail themselves of the juvenile record sealing provisions of D.C. law.

That, of course, was one solution to the problem. Another solution would have been to implement the statute as written and, if City Council had a problem with the outcome, it could always go back and amend the statute again.  As it is, with this holding, there is now only a very narrow window for filing a motion to dismiss for social reasons.  The opportunity is limited to one or more disposition hearings up and until the time the juvenile is adjudicated delinquent.

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