• What Adjudications Count When Determining a Juvenile’s Delinquency History Level

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    One of the most important factors affecting a juvenile court disposition is the juvenile’s delinquency history level, which in turn depends primarily on the juvenile’s prior delinquency adjudications. The delinquency history level (low, medium, or high), combined with the classification of the current offense, determines which dispositional alternatives are available in a particular case. G.S. 7B-2508. The higher the delinquency history level, the greater the consequences for the juvenile. Obviously, it’s important for the court to get it right. Based on recent advising requests, there is some confusion about what counts as a prior adjudication and what happens when there are multiple adjudications before the court. A recent appellate decision addressed one of these questions. Here’s a breakdown of the case, as well as new legislation in response, which will change the analysis.

    • What is a Prior Adjudication?

    A juvenile’s delinquency history level is determined in large part by calculating the total points assigned to the juvenile’s prior adjudications. (The juvenile’s probation status at the time of the offense also counts, which will be discussed in a later blog post). G.S. 7B-2507. A “prior adjudication” is not defined in the Juvenile Code, but the Court of Appeals answered one question about the meaning of that term in In re P.Q.M., __ N.C. App. __, 754 S.E.2d 431 (2014). In that case, the juvenile was adjudicated delinquent during three separate sessions of juvenile court that occurred on January 5, 2012, November 29, 2012, and December 3, 2012. No disposition had been entered in any case. So, the juvenile’s delinquency history looked like this:

    Offense Adjudication Date
    Communicating Threats January 5, 2012
    Robbery with a Dangerous Weapon (RWDW) November 29, 2012
    Larceny of a Firearm December 3, 2012


    All three adjudications were calendared for disposition on March 4, 2013. The court entered a disposition order based on RWDW, the most serious offense for which the juvenile had been adjudicated, and found the juvenile had two prior adjudications for communicating threats and larceny of a firearm. The RWDW offense constituted a “violent” offense, the most serious classification in the Juvenile Code, and the two other adjudications placed the juvenile at a “medium” delinquency history level. The dispositional chart, therefore, prescribed a Level 3 disposition, G.S. 7B-2508(f), which authorized the trial court’s commitment of the juvenile to a youth development center. P.Q.M., 754 S.E.2d at 433.

    On appeal, the juvenile argued that the larceny adjudication was not a prior adjudication because it occurred after his adjudication for RWDW. Finding that a prior adjudication is analogous to a prior conviction, defined by G.S. 15A-1340.11(7), the court held the larceny adjudication was a prior adjudication because it occurred before the disposition hearing and entry of the disposition. P.Q.M., 754 S.E.2d at 435. Thus, under P.Q.M., any adjudication that exists prior to the disposition hearing is a prior adjudication for purposes of determining a juvenile’s delinquency history level . . . at least for now.

    • The Current Offense Is not a Prior Adjudication

    A matter that was not at issue in P.Q.M. is the treatment of the current offense (i.e., the offense for which disposition is ordered), but it is an issue I often discuss with practitioners and judges. No delinquency history points are assigned for the current offense. Although no appellate decision has directly addressed the issue, it would be unreasonable to infer that the legislature intended for the “current” offense to be counted as part of the juvenile’s delinquency “history.” To quote a juvenile court counselor who recently consulted me about this topic, “today is not history.” However, the classification of the current offense as minor, serious, or violent under G.S. 7B-2508(a) is a relevant factor in determining the juvenile’s disposition level pursuant to the dispositional chart.

    • The Definition of “Prior Adjudication” Changes on December 1, 2015

    Change is coming in the form of HB 879 (“Juvenile Code Reform”), which was quickly approved and ratified by the General Assembly this session and is currently awaiting Governor McCrory’s signature. Along with several other changes to the Juvenile Code, it reverses the holding of P.Q.M. by amending G.S. 7B-2507(a) to define a prior adjudication as “an adjudication of an offense that occurs before the adjudication of the offense before the court.” HB 879, sec. 2.3. Unless vetoed, the new law will become effective December 1, 2015, and apply to offenses committed on or after that date.

    Under this new definition, the juvenile’s only prior adjudication in P.Q.M. would have been for the Class 1 misdemeanor of communicating threats (adjudicated before the RWDW adjudication), giving him a “low” delinquency history level and making him eligible for a Level 2 disposition. (Commitment to a youth development center is not authorized for a Level 2 disposition.)

    • Must Disposition Always Be Based on the Most Serious Offense?

    The answer is no. A contrary assumption probably comes from G.S. 7B-2508(h), which states:

    If a juvenile is adjudicated of more than one offense during a session of juvenile court, the court shall consolidate the offenses for disposition and impose a single disposition for the consolidated offenses. The disposition shall be specified for the class of offense and delinquency history level of the most serious offense.

    As indicated by the italics, this statute only applies to multiple adjudications obtained during a single session of juvenile court, which requires the court to consolidate the offenses for disposition. The Code is silent regarding the scenario in P.Q.M., which involved multiple adjudications that occurred in separate sessions of juvenile court. See P.Q.M., 754 S.E.2d at 434 (trial court not required to consolidate adjudications that occurred in separate sessions of juvenile court). In such situations, the court is not required to enter the disposition based on the most serious offense and can exercise its discretion to enter the most appropriate disposition.

    I’m interested to know if people have other questions about delinquency history levels. If so, please share! I will follow up with additional posts on recurring issues.

    LaToya Powell joined the School of Government in 2013. Previously, she spent more than six years with the Appellate Section of the North Carolina Department of Justice handling juvenile delinquency appeals in both state appellate courts and the U. S. Supreme Court. She began her career as a juvenile prosecutor in Johnston County, North Carolina, and has also served as an adjunct professor at Campbell University School of Law. She is a member of the North Carolina State Bar and U.S. Supreme Court Bar. Powell earned a BA, cum laude, from North Carolina State University and a JD from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law.

    5 thoughts on “What Adjudications Count When Determining a Juvenile’s Delinquency History Level”

    • Mary Jordan Juvenile Court Counselor says:

      I am confused. As a court couselor, we have always consider a ” prior adjudication” ans one which occurred prior to the offense before the court on the date of the current offense. As stated above, this will be a new law effective n December. Delinquency level and dispositional points so far have been use in court to determine a disposition . We dont always recommend the highest dispositional level because we consider the juvenile’s situation at that time whether it is mental health issues or other circumstances.
      Just confused as to the what the change really is.

      • LaToya Powell says:

        Hi Mary. Because there was no definition of “prior adjudication” in the Juvenile Code, courts were basically free to interpret that term however they wanted prior to the Court of Appeals’ decision in P.Q.M. However, P.Q.M. is currently the law and lower courts (i.e. juvenile court judges) are required to follow it, until the law changes. Under P.Q.M, a prior adjudication is any adjudication (other than the current offense) that exists at the time the court is entering its disposition. Thus, the court must assign points to any other adjudications that exist, regardless of the date of the offense or the date of the ajudication. This is the same way that prior convictions are counted for adult criminals at the time of sentencing, which was the reasoning for the Court’s decision.

        The new law, which becomes effective December 1, 2015, will reverse P.Q.M. and change the definition of a prior adjudication to one that occurs before the adjudication of the offense before the court. Note that even under the new law, however, it is the date of the adjudication that matters, not the date of the offense. Thus, under the new law, even if an offense was actually committed after the offense before the court, it would still be a prior adjudication, if it was adjudicated first. I hope this helps clarify the issue for you.

    • Drew Kukorowski says:

      LaToya, this is extremely helpful! One of the other issues that I’ve had come up in juvenile court involves the counting of “prior offenses” for purposes of N.C.G.S. 7B-2508(g), i.e., when a court has the ability to order a commitment to YDC based on minor offenses.

      Normally, a youth cannot be committed to a YDC based on an adjudication of a minor offense. However, 2508(g) says that a commitment may be ordered if the “juvenile has been adjudicated of four or more prior offenses.” I understand this to mean that a youth cannot be committed to YDC based on minor offenses unless the court is entering disposition on the fifth (or sixth, seventh, etc.) adjudication of a minor offense. Am I right about that?

      Sometimes figuring out what “prior offense” means has confused me. The statute says that “each successive offense is one that was committed after adjudication of the preceding offense.” I’ve interpreted this to mean that I need to look at the adjudication date of the preceding offense, and the offense date (including time of day) for the subsequent adjudication. I had a case in which the offense date of the fifth adjudication of a minor offense preceded (by a few hours) the adjudication date of the fourth minor offense, even though the fifth adjudication occurred after the fourth adjudication. In that case, I was prepared to argue that the youth wasn’t eligible for YDC commitment as her fifth minor offense wasn’t committed after adjudication of her fourth minor offense. The case never reached the point where the court had to rule on this issue, but I’ve always wondered if this is the correct understanding and application of 2508(g). Does this sound right to you?

      • LaToya Powell says:

        Thanks, Drew. We mostly agree on the interpretation of “prior offense” under G.S. 7B-2508(g). A prior offense, under this statute, is one that was both committed and adjudicated before the commission of the next offense. Thus, each of the “four or more” non-overlapping offenses must be one that was committed after adjudication of the preceding offense. However, they don’t all have to be classified as “minor” offenses. Any prior offense that satisfies this definition will count.

        The relevance of the timing of the fifth offense is an interesting question that is not explicitly addressed in the statute or in case law. I think there are reasonable arguments on both sides. Because the statute only requires that the juvenile have “four or more prior offenses,” the State might argue that the non-overlapping requirement only applies to those four offenses, and not the fifth. On the other hand, the language in the last sentence of subsection (g) suggests that the fourth prior offense must be adjudicated before a fifth successive offense is committed in order to constitute a “prior” offense, though it is unclear. Because courts should construe Juvenile Code statutes to provide greater protection to juveniles, not less, the latter argument might be more persuasive. If you have the opportunity to get a ruling on this issue, I’d like to know how it goes!

        I researched habitual felon case law for guidance, since that statute, similarly, requires a criminal defendant to have three prior non-overlapping felonies in order to be charged as an habitual felon. However, it appears that our courts have not yet addressed the timing of the fourth felony in that context either.

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