State v. Garrett, 280 N.C. App. 220, 2021-NCCOA-591 (Nov. 2, 2021)

In this Mecklenburg County case, the defendant was charged with two class H felonies (felonious breaking or entering and larceny after breaking or entering) in October of 2016, when he was 16 years of age and before “raise the age” was implemented through the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act. The charges were under the exclusive jurisdiction of the criminal law under the law in place at the time of the offense. Raise the age was passed in 2017 and applied prospectively, beginning with offenses committed on December 1, 2019. This case was set for trial in late 2017 and the defendant failed to appear. The defendant was arrested in 2019 and his case proceeded. The trial court granted a pretrial motion to dismiss, finding that the defendant’s constitutional rights to equal protection, protection from cruel and unusual punishment, and due process were violated by prosecution as an adult. The trial court went on to conclude that the loss of the benefit of Juvenile Court irreparably prejudiced the preparation of his case such that dismissal was the only remedy. The State appealed.

The Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant’s constitutional rights were not violated by trying him as an adult. As to the defendant’s equal protection argument, the Court concluded that under State v. Howren, 312 N.C. 454 (1984), there is no equal protection violation when the same group of people (here, 16-year-olds alleged to have committed a Class H felony) are treated differently at different times (here, before and after the effective date of the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act).

As to the defendant’s Eighth Amendment argument, the Court of Appeals concluded that trying a young defendant as an adult does not implicate the substantive limits on what can be made criminal without violating the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Those limits have been invoked only in relation to the status of addiction to drugs or alcohol. Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962). In addition, the prosecution of juveniles as adults involves the procedure taken regarding a criminal offense alleged against a juvenile, not the substance of what is made criminal. Trying the defendant as an adult does not, the Court reasoned, criminalize a status like addiction. Rather, it punishes criminal behavior—here, breaking or entering and larceny, “offenses that are undoubtedly within the police powers of North Carolina.” ¶ 21. The Court thus rejected the defendant’s Eighth Amendment claim.

As to the defendant’s due process argument, the Court concluded that there is no fundamental right to be tried as a juvenile in criminal cases, and therefore no particular process due in relation to being tried in that way. The Court distinguished Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966), noting that the District of Columbia statutory structure at issue in Kent, which did mandate certain procedures before a case was transferred from juvenile to adult court, was distinct from North Carolina’s, in which a defendant’s case began in superior court by default. Turning to substantive due process, because no fundamental right was at issue, the Court applied rational basis review and concluded that the State had a legitimate interest in prosecuting and sentencing juveniles under the statutory scheme in place at the time they commit their offense.

In the absence of any constitutional violation, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court erred in granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss under G.S. 15A-954(a)(4). The Court thus reversed the trial court and remanded the case.