Written by attorney Jack Joseph Gold

Juvenile Fitness Hearings in a Nutshell

Juvenile fitness hearing

One of the most important hearings in the Juvenile Court is this procedure (otherwise known as transfer hearings). All the proceedings are governed by the Welfare and Institution Code Section 707 hereinafter WIC, we look at these now.

If the minor is 16 years or older, the District Attorney can file a motion to transfer the minor or for the Court to find him not a fit and proper subject for Juvenile Jurisdiction. Perhaps the most important recent ongoing case is the Three Teens Arrested at Gardena High School for an accidental shooting which occurred on the campus. A 17 year old male Juvenile brought a gun to school in a backpack and whatever the reason, the gun discharged in the backpack injuring two students. The Juvenile had a very minor record and was on probation. We think the D.A. is or has filed for a fitness hearing under 707 (a) of the WIC. In these cases, the burden is on the people to prove the minor is not amenable to Juvenile Court Jurisdiction. 707 (a) outlines the 5 factors the Judge must consider and can find the minor is unfit. It can be one or all of the criteria mentioned therein but the Judge must make a find of that the minor is unfit for Juvenile court and further he/she must make findings as to why the minor is unfit. After you look at 707(a), you will see why. There are no presumptions as to fitness and there you will find the difference when you study 707 (b) of the WIC. Remember, the minor in (a) must be 16 years or older to even have a fitness requested by the People If under 16, the Attorney for the minor should simply make a motion to dismiss which the Judge must grant.

Remember Lawyers, the Judge must make a “common sense" finding that in “reality" the Client is really and factually unfit for Juvenile Court.

Now, on the flip side there is 707 (b) of the WIC that also has a laundry list of offenses that can change the nature and severity of the fitness hearing. In this situation, the following scenarios “must" take place and here, the Gardena High School situation does not apply. One of the listed offenses is violation of 211 of the Penal Code commonly known as Robbery and whether or not the client used a weapon does not change the rule of law that applies.

Prior to the fitness or transfer hearing the minor is entitled to have a probable cause hearing commonly known as an Edsel P hearing (named after a turning point case) wherein the District Attorney must prove by prima facie evidence that a crime was committed and most likely this minor committed the crime. If the D.A. filed directly in adult court, then the Juvenile is entitled to what is known as a reverse remand hearing (see PC 1170.17 et seq.) and the Attorney can present evidence to show that the court should send the minor back to juvenile. This occurs after a trial in adult court and is not part of this article.

Assuming the requirements under Edsel P are satisfied then the Court must “make findings" that the People have shown enough to satisfy the court that both a crime has been committed and this minor probably committed the crime. The Court “cannot" dismiss the Juvenile petition at these stages of the proceedings. The court can howver release minor if he is detained.

Finally, at the fitness hearing the court must consider and make findings thereon about the following 5 criteria:

1) The amount of sophistication displayed by the minor in the commission of this crime.

2) Can the minor be rehabilitated prior to the expiration of Juvenile court jurisdiction

3) Previous attempts to rehabilitate the minor.

4) The minors previous delinquent history

5) The gravity and circumstances of the offense

Now folks, here’s the kicker in all this. The minor client might be a fit and proper subject for Juvenile court jurisdiction in all of the four first categories but if he can’t overcome the fifth more than likely, he/she will be sent to adult court.

At this point all the minor client can do is present evidence that could lead the court to believe that the minor has presented enough evidence of “extenuating and mitigating circumstances" to overcome the “presumption of unfitness". Therefore the rule, unfit on one criteria, then he/she is unfit on all. This is why a psychological report is a necessary tool for the defense in attempting to overcome the presumption of unfitness in a 707 (b) hearing.

One last dilemma facing defense counsel in these types of cases is whether the People can make their case in from of a jury. Interesting?

Additional resources provided by the author

Welfare and Institutions Code Penal Code Practical Guide to Juvenile Delinquency Law (Special services division, Los Angeles County Public Defenders Office-Juvenile Services)

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