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North Carolina Judge Rules That Prosecuting 16-year-old As An Adult Violates His Constitutional Rights

Two years ago, the state passed ‘raise the age’ legislation that goes into effect in December. A judge’s decision regarding a teen charged in 2015 raises the possibility of relief for other young people charged since the law’s passage.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

A recent ruling in North Carolina has broad implications for 16- and 17-year-olds who have been charged as adults before the state’s “raise the age” law, passed in 2017, goes into effect in December.

In December 2015, 16-year-old Halo Garrett allegedly broke into a woman’s apartment and stole some of her belongings, including a TV. The Mecklenburg County district attorney’s office charged Garrett with breaking and entering and larceny, and his trial was scheduled for August of this year. 

But before the trial began, Garrett’s public defender, Katie Claire Hoffmann, asked the judge to dismiss his case on the grounds that charging him as an adult constituted cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Hoffmann also argued that his rights under the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizens equal protection under the law and the right to due process, would be violated.

If Garrett were charged with this crime when the “raise the age” law was in effect, Hoffmann argued, he would have greater access to services and a sealed criminal record. This year, after missing his original court date, Garrett was incarcerated (with adults) for about 30 days after turning himself in on the larceny and breaking and entering charges. 

On Aug. 14, Mecklenburg County Superior Court Judge Donnie Hoover ruled that Garrett’s rights were violated and dismissed his case. “The defendant is being deprived of his right to be treated as a juvenile, which he was at the time he allegedly committed these crimes, with all the attended benefits granted to juveniles to reform their lives,” Judge Hoover said.

“I didn’t really think a judge would be comfortable rocking the boat in this way,” Hoffmann told The Appeal. “But the judge had read the motion and had already been thinking about this—it felt like he was waiting for this.”

Efforts to raise the age in North Carolina stretched back more than a decade before the law’s 2017 passage, as advocates pushed the state to align with the rest of the nation. After New York passed similar legislation in April 2017, North Carolina was the last state to automatically charge 16-year-olds as adults. 

Criminal justice advocates pointed to extensive research about the development of adolescent brains, which affects their decision-making skills and impulse control abilities well into their 20s. “Often, putting somebody into an incarcerated setting simply increases the likelihood that they’re going to engage in future criminal acts,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution. “At the end of the day, it’s a much wiser and smarter reaction to look at the cause of what’s going on—it’s better for the young person and better for the community.”

The legislation enacted in North Carolina in June 2017 will send 16- and 17-year-olds accused of misdemeanors and low-level, Class H and I felonies (including breaking and entering, larceny and check forgery)—which account for 94 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds involved in the system—to juvenile court. More serious offenses will continue to be adjudicated in adult court. 

In fiscal year 2015-16, about 21,200 North Carolina 16- and 17-year-olds were charged with low-level felonies and misdemeanors. The raise the age legislation did not account for the children entering the system in the two and a half years between the bill’s passage and when it goes into effect. 

In Durham, newly elected District Attorney Satana Deberry implemented a policy to treat 16- and 17-year-olds as if the legislation is already in effect. Deberry created a juvenile division in her office that handles all cases involving people 18 years old and under. “Our community suffers when we saddle our children—who often cannot fully appreciate the consequences of their actions—with criminal records,” Deberry told The Appeal. “In the majority of cases, entangling these young people in the criminal justice system is overly punitive, counterproductive, and damaging to their futures.”

The Mecklenburg DA’s office declined to comment on how it is handling cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds before the raise the age law goes into effect. The office also declined to comment on Garrett’s case, which is on appeal. 

But in Garrett’s case, Assistant District Attorney Ellie Coludro argued in court in August that “you can’t go back in time and reconsider someone who may have been sentenced under fair sentencing, and then apply structured sentencing to them. This is exactly what Ms. Hoffmann is trying to get this court to do; to go back in time and apply new law that hasn’t even gone into effect yet, back to this defendant’s case.”

Hoffmann said that Judge Hoover’s decision in Garrett’s case may not extend to 16- and 17-year-olds who have already been convicted of crimes under the old guidelines, but that if it’s held up on appeal it may have a positive effect for the children who are currently charged in Mecklenburg County. “Halo’s a unique case because his case is so old. I don’t know what the implications are for people whose cases are settled, that’s a different type of relief sought,” Hoffmann said. “But for people whose cases are pending—I have 12 clients whose crimes where charged this year who are being treated the same as my adult clients.”

Even though 16-year-olds will no longer be automatically treated as adults anywhere in the U.S. once North Carolina’s law is enacted, the criminalization of children remains a significant problem. In September, an Orlando police officer arrested two 6-year-olds in separate incidents at an elementary school. And this month, a 9-year-old in Woodford County, Illinois, was charged with first-degree murder after allegedly setting a fire in a mobile home park that killed five people. Nearly 30,500 children under age 10 were arrested between 2013 and 2018, according to FBI statistics

“It’s inspiring and exciting to see North Carolina catch up with the rest of the country in acknowledging that kids are kids,” Hoffmann said. “However, there is still so much work to be done.”