On December 21, 2015, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that juvenile adjudications of delinquency are not “convictions” for the purpose of enhancing the grading from a misdemeanor to a felony for violations under the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act.
The Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act, 18 Pa. C.S. §6501(a)(1), prohibits persons from possessing firearms who have been convicted for certain crimes, one such crime being aggravated assault. In 2011, Terell Hale was convicted under §6105 based upon his possession of a firearm because he was previously adjudicated delinquent in 2005 for conduct which if committed by an adult would have given rise to a charge of aggravated assault.
During the sentencing phase, the Commonwealth took the position that when an individual has been adjudicated delinquent, this finding should be considered a “conviction” for the purposes of the sentencing enhancement, thereby moving the offense from misdemeanor to felony grading. While the sentencing court agreed with the Commonwealth, the Superior Court did not, vacating the sentence and remanding the case for resentencing, reasoning that the term “conviction” carries a discrete legal connotation that is not generally understood to encompass juvenile adjudication.
The Superior Court explained that a specific distinction is made within the terms of §6105 between convictions and juvenile adjudication. The court stated that because the statute initially keys the firearm prohibition convictions, and then separately extends the proscription under subsection (c)(7) to certain individuals who been adjudicated delinquent, acceptance of the Commonwealth’s position would render subsection (c)(7) as pointless.
While the Superior Court acknowledged Commonwealth v. Baker, 531 Pa. 541, 614 A.2d 663 (1992) (holding that juvenile adjudications are admissible in capital sentencing in support of aggravating circumstances that a defendant has a significant history of felony convictions involving the use or threat of violence to the person), the Superior Court reasoned that the Juvenile Act was enacted after the holding in Baker, and that post-Baker proceedings have continued to distinguish between convictions and juvenile adjudication. The Superior Court concluded that while judges are allowed to consider prior delinquency adjudications when selecting the range of a sentence within the appropriate grade, judges are not permitted to “disregard the language of the person not to possess statute, render portions of that statue surplusage, and increase the grading of the offense to a second-degree felony.”
In their appeal to the Supreme Court, the Commonwealth maintained that the holding in Baker established a broad scale, bright line rule “that adjudications of delinquency are convictions for purposes of sentencing.” The Commonwealth argued that because the General Assembly had the opportunity to, and had not altered the term conviction in any of the multiple amendments to §6105 post Baker, that it should be presumed that the General Assembly intended the term “conviction” to include adjudications within all subsequent statutes addressing sentencing. The Commonwealth went further to state that the General Assembly sanctioned the use of juvenile adjudications and sentencing by instituting sentencing guidelines that require them to be used to calculate prior record scores for adult offenders. Hale countered the prior adjudication are relevant for certain aspects of sentencing, because the court may sentence an individual more harshly due to his prior juvenile record, but must do so within the confines of a misdemeanor of the first-degree offense.
The Supreme Court held that the concept of convictions, as embodied in §6105, does not encompass juvenile adjudications reasoning that Baker arose in the context of discretionary sentencing determinations rather than mandatory grading enhancements, and certainly not an enhancement within a statue that, on its terms, expressly distinguishes between convictions and adjudications. The Court stated further, §6105 does not require the misdemeanor to felony enhancement upon adjudications of delinquency. Rather the consequences of a juvenile adjudication are otherwise addressed within the four corners of the statute.
The Court concluded that the plain language of §6105(a.1)(1) should be enforced according to its terms and declined to superimpose the policy considerations underlying the Baker decision onto the mandatory enhancement requirement.