Deferred Disposition Records May Be Sealed Prior to Juvenile’s 18th Birthday

Criminal charges can have lasting negative effects.  In many cases involving a juvenile defendant, those effects can be prevented through sealing the record.  Washington criminal defense attorneys know that sealing the record prior to the juvenile’s 18th birthday may help prevent negative effects as the young person applies to colleges, but the state sometimes objects to the timing of a record being sealed.

In a recent case, the state appealed the sealing of a juvenile’s deferred disposition record.  The juvenile defendant was charged with taking a motor vehicle without permission in the second degree and theft in the third degree.  The trial court granted her a deferred disposition.  She complied with the conditions of the deferral and the court vacated her conviction and dismissed the case with prejudice.

The court granted the defendant’s request to seal her juvenile record, and the state appealed.  The state argued the trial court could not seal the record until the juvenile turned 18.

The appeals court determined the issue on appeal was one of statutory interpretation.  The appeals court looked to RCW 13.50.260, on sealing juvenile records, and RCW 13.40.127, on deferred dispositions and the sealing of such records.   The state argued that the court may not seal a juvenile’s record of a completed deferral until her 18th birthday under the plain language of RC@ 13.40.127.  The defendant argued that, pursuant to RCW 13.50.260, the court was authorized to seal the record immediately if the case was dismissed with prejudice.

RCW 13.50.260(2) provides that “The court shall enter a written order immediately sealing the official juvenile court record . . . upon the dismissal of charges with prejudice, subject to the state’s right, if any, to appeal the dismissal.” Once the deferral conditions are satisfied, the court vacates the conviction and dismisses the case with prejudice.  The appeals court found the plain language of the RCW 13.50.260 entitled the defendant to have her record sealed, and RCW 13.40.127 supported the interpretation. RCW 13.40.127(10)(b) states that nothing in that subsection prevents a juvenile from seeking to have the record of her deferred disposition sealed under RCW 13.50.260.  The appeals court found that together the statutes unambiguously supported sealing the juvenile defendant’s record.

The state admitted it had not previously contested sealing minors’ deferred disposition records, but had changed its policy.  The state argued that RCW 13.40.127(10)(a) supported its position that the court must wait until the defendant is 18 to seal the record.  The appeals court noted, however, that the statute requires the court to hold a hearing no later than 30 days after the defendant’s 18th birthday, but it does not prohibit the court from holding a hearing or sealing a record prior to that time.

The state also argued that allowing the sealing of deferred disposition records for juveniles conflicted with the statutory provision stating that juveniles may not have more than one deferral.  The state argued it would have difficulty determining whether a juvenile is eligible for deferred disposition if the records can be sealed before the juvenile turns 18.  The appeals court acknowledged this could be an issue for the state, because there is no statutory mechanism allowing prosecutors to unseal juvenile records or learn of their contents to determine if there was a previous deferred disposition.  The appeals court found, however, that the plain language of the statutes was clear, and this issue did not change the interpretation.

Although the plain language of the statute was sufficient to decide the case, the appeals court also discussed the legislative history and intent.  The appeals court found that its interpretation of the statute was supported by the legislative history and furthered the stated purposes of the Juvenile Justice Act of 1977.  The purpose of the Act included providing restitution for victims and rehabilitation and treatment for juvenile offenders. The appeals court noted that the state’s convenience was not one of the purposes.  Furthermore, the deferred disposition may only be dismissed after the defendant pays restituted and completed supervision.  The Act’s goals of accountability and restitution must be met before sealing is available, so delaying it until the defendant’s 18th birthday does not further the goals.  The appeals court noted the delay could negatively affect the defendant’s life, which would conflict with the stated goal of rehabilitation.  The appeals court found its interpretation furthered the stated goals of the Act.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court, based on the plain language of the statutes.

Not only did the state challenge the sealing of this defendant’s record, but it also indicated there had been a policy change at the county prosecuting attorney’s office to contest sealing minor’s deferred disposition records.  Ideally, with the appeals court decision, they will revert to the previous policy not to contest sealing such records.  However, any minor facing criminal charges needs an experienced Washington criminal defense attorney to aggressively fight for his or her rights.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC by phone at (206) 622-6562 to discuss your case.

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