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JUVENILE ADJUDICATION OF DELINQUENCY IS NOT A CONVICTION FOR THE PURPOSE OF ENHANCING THE GRADING OF A VIOLATION OF THE PA UNIFORM FIREARMS ACT

The PA Supreme Court has held in the case of Commonwealth v. Hale, 25 EAP 2014 (December 21, 2015) that juvenile adjudications of delinquency are not “convictions” for purposes of enhancing the grading from a misdemeanor to felony for violations under Section 6105 of the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act.

FACTS

In 2011, Hale was convicted, among other things, of a Section 6105 Firearms Act offense, based upon his possession of a firearm and the fact of a previous juvenile adjudication in 2005 for conduct which would give rise to an aggravated assault conviction if committed by an adult.

Although a Section 6105 violation, by default, is graded as a misdemeanor of the first degree, subsection (a.1)(1) elevates the offense grade to a felony of the second degree where the defendant was “convicted” of any felony offense enumerated in subsection (b).

Prior to sentencing in Hale’s case, the prosecution took the position that the finding of delinquency should be considered a “conviction” for purposes of the subsection (a.1)(1). The sentencing court found the enhancement to a felony grading to be appropriate, although it premised the enhancement on a different, incorrect, rationale that is not germane to the appeal at issue.

Hale appealed and the Superior Court vacated his sentence and remanded for resentencing, explaining that the term “conviction” carries a discrete legal connotation that is not generally understood to encompass juvenile adjudications.

The Superior Court observed that the Juvenile Act explicitly provides that such adjudications are not convictions. Furthermore, the Superior Court noted that a specific distinction is made, within the terms of Section 6105, between convictions and juvenile adjudications. Although the Superior Court recognized that sentencing courts may consider prior delinquency adjudications when selecting the range of a sentence within the appropriate grade, it also concluded that judges are not permitted to disregard the language of the Firearms Act statute and render portions of that statute meaningless when determining whether to increase the grading of the offense to a second-degree felony.

The Commonwealth sought allowance of appeal which was granted by the PA Supreme Court to consider whether the Superior Court erred by contradicting prior decisions of the PA Supreme Court which held that prior adjudications of delinquency are relevant at sentencing.

ISSUE

Whether juvenile adjudications of delinquency qualify as “convictions” for purposes of enhancing the grading from a misdemeanor to felony under Section 6105 of the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act?

HOLDING

The PA Supreme Court held that the concept of “convictions,” as embodied in Section 6105, does not encompass juvenile adjudications.

REASONING

The Commonwealth vigorously maintained that prior case law established a broad-scale, bright-line rule “that adjudications of delinquency are convictions for purposes of sentencing.”

Hale’s arguments adhered closely to the Superior Court’s rationale. He highlighted the explicit distinction, made within Section 6105’s own terms, between juvenile adjudication and convictions; the Juvenile Act’s specific admonition that an adjudication “is not a conviction,” 42 Pa.C.S. §6354(a); and the principle of statutory construction requiring penal provisions to be construed narrowly.
Hale observed that the prior case law relied upon by the Commonwealth has only previously been applied in death-penalty cases. Furthermore, Hale argued that if the prior case law relied upon by the Commonwealth was applicable, it does not represent a narrow construction of the term “conviction,” as is peculiarly required under federal constitutional principles regulating capital punishment and may have been incorrectly decided. (PRACTITIONER’S NOTE – Is Justice Saylor inviting a challenge to the Baker line of cases here?)

The PA Supreme Court also noted that Hale was correct in asserting that the Commonwealth’s framing of the issue overstated breadth of the Superior Court’s decision since, as the intermediate court explained, juvenile adjudications retain their relevance to discretionary sentencing determinations precisely because their consideration is expressly provided for in the Sentencing Guidelines.

Lastly, the PA Supreme Court paid deference to the legislative process, noting that this case highlighted the substantial policy considerations involved in determining culpability and the boundaries of attendant legal consequences for the actions of minors. “In Pennsylvania, subject to the limits of the Constitution, such matters are generally reserved, in the first instance, to the General Assembly.”

In conclusion, Section 6105 does not proceed, along any such lines, to predicate the misdemeanor-to-felony enhancement upon adjudications of delinquency. Accordingly, Section 6105 presents a context in which the legislative admonition that an adjudication of delinquency “is not a conviction” should be respected.

http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Supreme/out/J-48-2015mo%20-%201024796075862306.pdf?cb=1


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