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IN RE POFF

October 20, 1955

In re John Lawrence POFF


The opinion of the court was delivered by: CURRAN

Four petitions were filed in the Juvenile Court of the District of Columbia representing that John Lawrence Poff, aged sixteen, was within the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court. One petition, number 15-535-J, filed March 28, 1953, alleged that Poff, on January 30, 1953, used an automobile without the permission of the owner. A second petition, number 15-540-J, filed March 20, 1953, alleged that between February 8, 1953 and February 9, 1953 Poff used an automobile without the permission of the owner. A third petition, number 15-545-J, filed March 23, 1953, alleged that on December 10, 1952, Poff took, without right, property belonging to three separate persons. A fourth petition, number 15-558-J, filed March 24, 1953, alleged that between February 8, 1953 and February 9, 1953, Poff used an automobile without the permission of the owner.

 Petitioner now comes before this Court for a writ of habeas corpus praying that the sentence imposed by the Juvenile Court was unconstitutional inasmuch as he was not advised of his right to counsel, a right guaranteed him under the Sixth Amendment.

 The Government urges upon this Court that the constitutional guarantee of the right to the assistance of counsel in all criminal prosecutions is not applicable to proceedings before the Juvenile Court to determine the delinquency of a child, and relies upon the decision reached in the case of Shioutakon v. District of Columbia, 114 A.2d 896, 898, decided June 24, 1955 in the Municipal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The distinguished and learned Judge of that Court, writing for the Court, states:

 '* * * The purpose of the proceedings is not to determine the question of guilt or innocence, but to promote the welfare of the child and the best interests of the state by the strengthening of family ties where possible, and, when necessary, to remove the child from custody of his parents for his welfare or the safety or protection of the public * * *.' Citing Thomas v. United States, 74 App.D.C. 167, 121 F.2d 905, 908.

 The Thomas case is authority for the principle that the procedure in the Juvenile Court in making the adjudication is non-criminal in character and such adjudication 'is in no sense the counterpart of a conviction in a criminal court'. But I cannot overlook the ultimate function of the Juvenile Court to determine the guilt or innocence of the individual in order to make an adjudication of whether he is a delinquent.

 The original Juvenile Court Act enacted in the District of Columbia in 1906, March 19, 1906, 34 Stat. 73, Ch. 960, § 1, D.C.Code 1951, § 11-901 et seq., was devised to afford the juvenile protections in addition to those he already possessed under the Federal Constitution. Before this legislative enactment, the juvenile was subject to the same punishment for an offense as an adult. It follows logically that in the absence of such legislation, the juvenile would be entitled to the same constitutional guarantees and safeguards as an adult. If this be true then the only possible reason for the Juvenile Court Act was to afford the juvenile safeguards in addition to those he already possessed. The legislative intent was to enlarge, not to diminish these protections.

 'In order that the beneficient purpose of the act may be effectuated, it should be construed liberally, except in-so-far as it purports to restrain the liberty of the child, in which case it should be strictly construed.' Phillips v. State, Tex.Cr.App., 20 S.W.2d 790, 791. See also In re Lundy, 82 Wash. 148, 143 P. 885.

 The question boils down simply to whether the legislature could deprive, had it so intended, a youth of these constitutional rights. This Court believes it could not, for in so doing it would be contrary to all principles that only by amendment may the Congress depart from the Federal Constitution. If this deprivation were extended to cover certain crimes committed by adults, it would be condemned by the Courts. Yet by some sort of rationalization, under the guise of protective measures, we have reached a point where rights once held by a juvenile are no longer his. Have we now progressed to a point where a child may be incarcerated and deprived of his liberty during his minority by calling that which is a crime by some other name? If so, at what age is the Congress limited to legislate on behalf of the juvenile? May a child be deprived of his liberty and incarcerated in an institution until he reaches the age of twenty-one years merely by changing the name of the offense from unauthorized use of a motor vehicle to juvenile delinquency? In other words, has the Congress wiped out the constitutional protection by changing a name, the substance remaining the same? This Court stands steadfast in the belief that the Federal Constitution, insofar as it is applicable 'cannot be nullified by a mere nomenclature, the evil or the thing itself remaining the same.' See dissenting opinion of Judge Crane in People v. Lewis, 260 N.Y. 171, 183 N.E. 353, 356, 86 A.L.R. 1001, which contains reasoning closely analogous to that of Dendy v. Wilson, 1944, 142 Tex. 460, 179 S.W.2d 269, 151 A.L.R. 1217.

 The Government states that the rights guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to persons accused of crime are not available to petitioner because he was not charged with a crime and the proceedings before the Juvenile Court resulting in his commitment to the Department of Public Welfare was not a criminal prosecution.

 In Dendy v. Wilson, supra, the Texas Supreme Court held that minor children against whom proceedings were pending in the Juvenile Court could not be compelled over their objections to give testimony which might incriminate them under the protective provisions respecting self-incrimination in the Federal and State Constitutions, and the provision of the statute creating the Juvenile Court that evidence given in that Court should be inadmissible in another proceeding did not afford sufficient immunity to void the constitutional prohibitions. In California, section 736 of the Welfare and Institutions Code, provides that 'An order adjudging a person to be a ward of the juvenile court shall not be deemed to be a conviction of crime.' In the case of In re Contreras, 109 Cal.App.2d 787, 241 P.2d 631, 633, the District Court of Appeals, Second District, Division 1, State of California, said:

 'While the juvenile court law provides that adjudication of a minor to be a ward of the court shall not be deemed to be a conviction of crime, nevertheless, for all practical purposes, this is a legal fiction, presenting ...


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