Supreme Court weighs jurisdiction of juvenile gun case

By: - September 23, 2022 7:00 am

The Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments about the jurisdiction of juvenile charges for dangerous possession of a firearm. (Courtesy IN.gov)

The Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday in the case of a young boy who admitted to dangerous possession of a firearm shortly before the jurisdiction of such offenses was upended by the same court.

“It’s not whether you can ever prosecute it, it’s where you can,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush said. 

The 14-year-old defendant, known as M.H. in filings, was arrested in June 2019 in Elkhart County and admitted to delinquent acts, including dangerous possession of a firearm. 

But in 2020, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that juvenile courts couldn’t oversee those offenses because they had no adult equivalent. At that point, juvenile courts across the state had ruled upon dangerous firearm possession cases for more than two decades.

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Spurred by that decision, the General Assembly inserted language granting jurisdiction to juvenile courts in 2021. However, the language wasn’t retroactive to previous cases, including the case of M.H., who had already received judgment on his case.

M.H.’s defense challenged his Elkhart County judgment, which the juvenile court denied, citing the new law. But the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed that decision, saying the court lacked jurisdiction at the time of its judgment.

“Both the Indiana and federal constitutions have a provision that… forbids the states to enact any law which imposes a punishment for an act which was not punishable at the time it was committed,” Mark Altenhof, M.H.’s defense attorney, said. “That’s exactly what happened here.”

Altenhof, under questioning, admitted the act was punishable under law, but clarified that no court had jurisdiction over it.

Watch a recording of the Indiana Supreme Court arguments in M.H. v. State of Indiana here.

“The law applied to him, the problem was where to apply it,” Justice Mark Massa said.

Justice Christopher Goff and other justices expressed concern about granting M.H. relief when so many other juveniles had similar judgments against them

“I’m more concerned about an insurmountable gap in future cases, if your client were to get relief,” Goff said. 

“We are stuck with the laws as they are written, not as we wish them to be,” Altenhof said. “I think that the more unfair results would be to have juveniles stuck with these adjudications where the juvenile court didn’t have subject matter jurisdiction in the first place.”

The state, represented by Supervising Deputy Attorney General Ellen Meilaender, argued the court didn’t need to overturn the 25 years of juvenile court rulings since juvenile cases didn’t have the same collateral consequences as adult cases and, frequently, were expunged when someone turned 18.

“If the court were inclined to do so, I think you could justify a rule that said there’s no retroactive application to juvenile adjudications because of their unique nature and that they don’t have the same ongoing effects that continue on in a person’s life (since) they are confidential,” Meilaender said. “But the state is not asking the court to do that, the state believes that (previous rulings suffice).”

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Whitney Downard
Whitney Downard

A native of upstate New York, Whitney previously covered statehouse politics for CNHI’s nine Indiana papers, focusing on long-term healthcare facilities and local government. Prior to her foray into Indiana politics, she worked as a general assignment reporter for The Meridian Star in Meridian, Mississippi. Whitney is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University (#GoBonnies!), a community theater enthusiast and cat mom.

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