ACLU Supports Legal Challenge to Adult Trials for California Teens Charged with Hate Crimes

December 15, 2000 12:00 am

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SAN DIEGO–The American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties, along with the ACLU affiliates of Northern and Southern California, today filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a San Diego case in which the District Attorney is prosecuting eight teens charged as adults for a hate crime.

“Hate crimes should certainly be vigorously prosecuted and all possible steps should be taken to prevent them, but the constitutional rights of the accused minors should not be trampled in the process,” said Linda Hills, Executive Director of the ACLU of San Diego.

The matter is being addressed by the court through the consolidation of two cases, Manduley v. Superior Court and Rose v. Superior Court. The District Attorney’s decision to try the teens as adults is based upon the passage last March of Proposition 21, the “Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act.”

In its court papers, the ACLU argues that Proposition 21 is unconstitutional for two reasons:

1) because it violates the single subject requirement for state ballot propositions and

2) because the portion of Proposition 21 which transferred the decision of whether to try young defendants as adults or as juveniles from judges to district attorneys violates the constitutional principles of separation of powers, equal protection of the law, and due process.

The ACLU argues that the decision of whether or not to try a teenager as an adult is more appropriately an impartial judge’s function, not that of a prosecutor who by definition is a biased advocate within an adversarial process.

“When young people are arbitrarily tried as adults, they are deprived of the educational and rehabilitative programs available in the juvenile system, virtually guaranteeing that when they are released from custody they will lack the skills needed to become contributing, law-abiding members of the community,” said Hills. “The interests of the victims, the defendants, and the larger community are best served when a judge looks at all the facts and makes an impartial decision about where the case should be tried.”

Prior to Proposition 21, juvenile court judges held hearings to consider a young person’s prior criminal history, the likelihood of rehabilitation, and the seriousness of the crime. Defense attorneys would present psychological evaluations, school records, and other background to the judge.

Under Proposition 21, no hearing is held and the district attorney has no access to much of this information or obligation to consider these factors.

“This one-sided approach to a criminal prosecution and the lack of consistent standards for whether or not a juvenile will be charged as an adult make a mockery of the principles of due process and equal protection of the law, which are designed to ensure a fair hearing for a person accused of a crime” says Hills. “Instead, the future of a young person is subject to the sole and potentially arbitrary discretion of the person whose job it is to put him in jail.”

In its court papers, the ACLU also urges that the entire proposition be invalidated on the constitutional grounds that it addresses too many subjects. The single subject requirement was adopted by the voters in 1948 to ensure that a voter could be reasonably certain what impact his ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote would have.

“Proposition 21’s 43 pages contained changes to at least three separate issues: overhauling the juvenile justice system, curbing gang violence, and expanding the state’s ‘Three Strikes’ law,” said Hills. Even extremely well-informed voters found it difficult to determine what exactly it was they were voting on.”

In September, a judge of the Fourth District Court of Appeals issued an emergency stay in the proceedings in order to allow the constitutional issues to be decided before the youths enter pleas in adult court. The court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case on January 9, 2001.

However, because the case is to be decided at the Court of Appeals level, it is expected to be the first Proposition 21 challenge to reach the state Supreme Court.

In the Manduley and Rose cases, eight white San Diego teens are accused of beating and robbing five elderly Latino migrant workers last July. The San Diego District Attorney has charged all eight as adults.

The ACLU takes no position with respect to the guilt or innocence of any of the eight defendants, but focuses on procedural and constitutional issues similar to those the organization cites in its ongoing constitutional challenge of Proposition 21 in the case of League of Women Voters v. Davis, which was filed immediately following the March vote.

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