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Juvenile Sex Offenders in W.V. Not Required to Register After State Supreme Court Rules 'Adjudication' Not 'Conviction'

by Lonnie Burton

On February 14, 2017, the West Virginia Supreme Court issued a decision that under state law, a juvenile adjudicated guilty of a sex offense was not required to register as a sex offender because the sex offender registration statute did not explicitly require it. The high court's decision came in response to the request of a Webster County Circuit Court judge who certified two question of law to them.

Two different juveniles were adjudicated guilty of sexoffenses involving toddlers. Both juveniles were sentenced to the custody of the Department of Juvenile Services until their 21st birthdays. As one of the juveniles approached the date of his release, the circuit court that sentenced him held a review hearing at which the juvenile's lawyer sought dismissal of the charges. At that hearing, the issue of whether the juvenile would have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life was raised.

The argument turned on the language of W. Va. Code § 15-12-2(b), which required "any person convicted of a(n] (sex] offense" to register as a sex offender once having reached the age of 18. The juveniles in question, however, were "adjudicated a juvenile deliquent," not convicted of an offense, argued their lawyers. The circuit court decided it would certify the question of whether an adjudication counted as a conviction for the purpose of sex offender registration to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

In short, the supreme court answered the question as follows: "An adjudication of juvenile deliquency by a juvenile court shall not be deemed a conviction." The court, seemingly uncomfortable with its decision, emphasized that it does not "sit as a superlegislature," and that it is their "duty to enforce legislation according to the plain language of the statutes enacted by the Legislature unless it runs afoul" of the constitution.

The court noted that in other contexts, such as a double jeopardy case, it has ruled that an adjudication is not a conviction and does not place the juvenile in legal jeopardy, and thus cannot constitute the basis for the defense of double jeopardy. The court thus rejected the state's invitation to treat a juvenile adjudication as a conviction, as other states have done.

In rejecting that contention, the supreme court noted that West Virginia law is different from that of other states that have required juvenile sex offenders to register for life. States such as Rhode Island and Illinois, for example, have statutes that mandate a juvenile "who meets the definition of a sex offender" to comply with registration requirements.

By contrast, West Virginia's registration statute specifically limits registration to those "convicted" of a sex offense. Because juveniles cannot be "convicted" of any offense, they are not required to comply with sex offender registration statutes, the court concluded.

See: State of West Virginia v. on Certified Questions from the Circuit Court of Webster County, No. 16-0677 (S. Ct. W.V. 2017).

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State of West Virginia v. on Certified Questions from the Circuit Court of Webster County



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