Court says juvenile-probation rules should be narrow, clear

Thursday, October 7, 2010

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Juvenile trial courts should avoid imposing overly broad probation restrictions and draft those provisions clearly, a California appeals court has ruled. Although the decision applies only in California, it could prove persuasive to courts in other states — in part because California sees more juvenile probation-condition cases than any other state.

In 2008, a juvenile court judge determined that a minor known in court proceedings as “E.O.” had engaged in felony vandalism by painting gang-related graffiti on school property. In 2010, another petition was filed against E.O. for possessing a knife with a 3 1/2-inch blade, in violation of the allowable 2 1/2 inches.

Judge Patrick E. Tondreau of the Superior Court of Santa Clara County placed E.O. on probation and imposed a number of conditions. One prohibited him from coming “within 25 feet of a Courthouse when the minor knows there are criminal or juvenile proceedings occurring which involves anyone the minor knows to be a gang member or where the minor knows a witness or victim of gang-related activity will be present.”

The minor appealed, contending that this restriction was overboard and infringed on his constitutional rights, including his First Amendment-based right to attend court hearings. On Sept. 29, the Court of Appeals of California, 6th Appellate District, agreed with the minor in In Re E.O.

The appeals court noted that the trial court’s broad language could apply even when the minor went to other parts of a courthouse to attend different court proceedings. It could even apply to E.O. when he was in “adjacent buildings,” and that E.O. “could violate the condition if a car or bus in which he is a passenger passes by such a building.” And the appeals court said the provision would conflict with the California state constitution, which gives victims and family members of victims the right to attend court-related proceedings.

The government had argued that the broad restriction was necessary in order to prevent individuals from attending trials or loitering outside trials to glower at and intimidate witnesses in gang-related cases. However, the appeals court said that concern was covered by another probation condition that E.O. did not challenge — one restricting his knowing participation in gang-related activities.

The appeals court not only called the trial court’s probation restriction overbroad, but it also chastised that court for the difficult language it employed. “Probation conditions — particularly in juvenile cases — should be as comprehensible as possible,” the appellate court wrote.

The opinion said: “We think the trial court should reconsider the necessity for, and thus the purpose of, the condition.” A footnote provided “suggested substitute language” spelling out the conditions in a much more readable fashion. For example: “In all other cases, you must stay at least 50 feet away from the entrance to any courtroom where you know there is a gang-related case going on.”

A readability test the appellate court applied to the trial court’s language rated it as comprehensible to a 28-year-old. The same test applied to the appeals court's wording was understandable to a 7- or 8-year-old.

“Clarity is possible even where the concept is complex,” the appeals court wrote.

In Re E.O. sends a clear message to juvenile-court judges that narrowly tailored probation restrictions will better protect young people's First Amendment rights.

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