Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, March 7, 2024


Page 4


Court of Appeal:

Misdemeanor During Probation Did Not Preclude Sealing of Juvenile Records


By Kimber Cooley, Staff Writer


The Third District Court of Appeal has held that a juvenile court erred in determining that a minor was categorically ineligible to have his records sealed because he was adjudged a delinquent for a second time for the crime of misdemeanor battery before he completed probation on the first offense.

Justice Elena J. Duarte wrote the opinion, filed Tuesday, reversing the order denying the motion to seal by Placer Superior Court Judge Todd D. Irby. Acting Presiding Justice Ronald B. Robie and El Dorado Superior Court Presiding Judge Vicki Ashworth, sitting on assignment, joined in the opinion.

In March 2021, the prosecution filed a petition under California Welfare & Institutions Code §602 charging J.S., then 13 years old, with second degree robbery, misdemeanor battery, and other offenses.

The petition arose from an incident where J.S., together with three other juveniles, stole a guitar and punched one minor in the face and strangled another.

In April, the petition was amended to add another count against J.S. for battery with serious bodily injury for an incident occurring approximately three months after the first, this time at school. Now 14, J.S. repeatedly punched another student in the face without provocation during class, causing injury.

In May 2021, J.S. admitted to the second-degree robbery, battery with serious bodily injury as well as a great bodily injury enhancement. The remaining charges were dismissed.

In June 2021, he was adjudged a ward of the Juvenile Court and placed on formal probation, requiring him to obey all laws and serve 15 days in a juvenile detention facility.

In April 2022, the prosecution filed a second wardship petition against J.S. In May, he was adjudged a ward of the court based on the finding that he committed a misdemeanor battery.

He did not dispute that he was on probation at the time the second offense was committed.

Sealing of Records

Welfare and Institutions Code §786(a) provides, in relevant part:

“If a person who has been alleged or found to be a ward of the juvenile court satisfactorily completes (1) an informal program of supervision pursuant to Section 654.2, (2) probation under Section 725, or (3) a term of probation for any offense, the court shall order the petition dismissed. The court shall order sealed all records pertaining to the dismissed petition in the custody of the juvenile court, and in the custody of law enforcement agencies, the probation department, or the Department of Justice.”

Sec. 786(c)(1) provides explanation to what it means to have satisfactorily completed probation. It states:

“For purposes of this section, satisfactory completion of an informal program of supervision or another term of probation described in subdivision (a) shall be deemed to have occurred if the person has no new findings of wardship or conviction for a felony offense or a misdemeanor involving moral turpitude during the period of supervision or probation and if the person has not failed to substantially comply with the reasonable orders of supervision or probation that are within their capacity to perform.”

In February 2023, the Probation Department filed an application for dismissal of wardship and all proceedings against J.S., noting that the minor had met all conditions of probation. The department also requested that the records pertaining to both the first and second petitions be sealed pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code §786.

The prosecution did not object to the termination of J.S.’s probation or to the sealing of the records pertaining to his second petition, but it did object to the sealing of records pertaining to the first petition. It asserted that such relief was not warranted under §786(c) because J.S.  suffered a new finding of wardship during the period of probation on the first case.

Irby ordered that J.S.’s probation be terminated after finding that he had successfully completed probation and ordered that all records pertaining to the second wardship petition be sealed. However, he took the matter of sealing the records pertaining to the first petition under submission.

In June 2023, J.S. filed a motion under §786 seeking an order dismissing the first petition and sealing the records pertaining to that petition based on his satisfactory completion of probation. J.S. argued that he was not categorically ineligible for relief because misdemeanor battery was not a crime of moral turpitude and the section only precluded relief when the new wardship was based on such an offense.

Irby denied the motion, concluding that the sealing of records pursuant §786 was not warranted as a matter of law relating to J.S.’s first petition because there was a new finding of wardship during the period of probation.

Plain Language

Duarte disagreed with Irby’s findings. She wrote:

“Here, the sole issue we must decide is whether the juvenile court properly determined, as a matter of law, that J.S. was not entitled to relief under section 786 because he did not ‘satisfactorily complete[]’ a term of probation…. As we have outlined above, the juvenile court concluded that the plain language of this provision precludes relief where, as here, there was any new finding of wardship during the period of probation.”

Looking to the plain language of the statute, she noted that a determination will depend, in part, on the meaning of the word “or” in §786(c)(1) and agreed that “a straightforward reading of section 786, subdivision (c)(1) arguably supports the juvenile court’s interpretation.”

However, she did not find that straightforward reading to be determinative. She explained:

“The question we must resolve here is whether the qualifying language that applies to an adult criminal conviction — namely, that it must be for a felony offense or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude during the period of probation — also applies to a new finding of wardship. The statutory language is ambiguous on this point, especially since the statutory alternatives identified by the Legislature (new finding of wardship or conviction) are not separated by punctuation, such as commas or a semicolon.”

To resolve that ambiguity, the justice turned to the legislative history of §786.

Legislative History

She noted that the original §786 was passed with the purpose of furthering rehabilitation and reintegration of juvenile offenders.

Effective Jan. 1, 2016, the section was amended by Assembly Bill 666, introduced by then-Assembly member Mark Stone, D-Monterey, to add subsection (c)(1). The purpose of the amendment was to provide a definition of “satisfactory completion.”

Looking to the analysis provided to the State Assembly, Duarte wrote that “the sponsor of Assembly Bill No. 666 recommended that ‘satisfactory completion’ be defined utilizing two criteria.”

She explained that the Assembly commentary indicated that the first criteria was that the juvenile not have been adjudicated or convicted for a new felony or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude during the period of wardship. The second criteria was that the minor did not fail to substantially comply with the terms of his or her probation.

Under these circumstances, Duarte said, “There is simply nothing in the language of the statute or its legislative history evincing an intent on the part of the Legislature to broadly preclude relief under section 786 by making a person categorically ineligible for relief when there is any new finding of wardship during the period of probation, as the juvenile court found.”

She continued:

“The legislative history makes clear that the Legislature intended to allow as many youths as possible to receive a second chance at rehabilitation and a clean slate when pursuing higher education or entering the workforce. This policy goal would be defeated by construing the statute as precluding relief under section 786 if there is any new finding of wardship during the period of probation, such as a wardship finding based on the commission of a misdemeanor offense or other nonserious/nonviolent offense.”

Appropriate Remedy

The panel remanded the matter to allow the Juvenile Court to exercise its discretion.

Duarte wrote:

“Here, the juvenile court did not make any findings concerning substantial compliance. Instead, as detailed ante, the court denied J.S.’s motion to seal juvenile records pertaining to the first wardship petition based on the court’s (erroneous) determination that J.S. was categorically ineligible for relief under section 786. On this record, we conclude that remand for further proceedings is warranted. The record reflects that the juvenile court was unaware of its discretion to grant the relief requested by J.S.”

The case is In re J.S., 2024 S.O.S. 872.


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