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Commonwealth v. C.L.

December 17, 2008

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA APPELLEE
v.
C.L., A MINOR APPELLANT



Appeal from the Order entered September 17, 2007 In the Court of Common Pleas of Bradford County Civil No. 07IR000474.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kelly, J.

BEFORE: GANTMAN, SHOGAN and KELLY, JJ.

¶ 1 Appellant, C.L., a minor, appeals from the order entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Bradford County denying his petition for waiver of Victims of Juvenile Offenders (VOJO) fee. We vacate the order, finding that the trial court does not have statutory authority to impose fees on juveniles who are accused of delinquency, maintain their innocence, reject informal resolution, and are ultimately not adjudicated delinquent.

¶ 2 After a complaining witness made a delinquency accusation against Appellant, the Bradford County Probation Department conducted an intake interview with him on February 12, 2007.*fn1 Following this interview, a juvenile petition was filed by a Pennsylvania State Trooper charging Appellant with indecent assault, a violation of 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 3126(a).

¶ 3 On April 16, 2007, the parties held a "Phase II Conference," at which they were unable to resolve the matter informally. An adjudication hearing was scheduled for June 6, 2007. At the hearing, the Commonwealth moved to dismiss the petition due to the fact that the complaining witness recanted her accusation against Appellant. The court dismissed the petition without prejudice, and over the objection of counsel, ordered Appellant to pay a fifty dollar fee into a Victims of Juvenile Offenders (VOJO) fund.*fn2

¶ 4 Subsequently, on June 12, 2007, Appellant filed a petition for waiver of VOJO payment, alleging that the trial court had no authority to impose a VOJO fee because he had not been given a consent decree or informal adjustment, nor found delinquent. Appellant also asserted his innocence. The trial court scheduled Appellant's petition for a hearing, limited to the factual question of whether Appellant was "actually innocent." The next day, Appellant filed a petition for expungement of juvenile records. The Commonwealth did not object, and the trial court granted the petition.

¶ 5 On September 17, 2007, a hearing on Appellant's VOJO fee waiver petition was held. At the hearing, the court placed the burden of proof on Appellant. After the hearing, the trial court entered an order denying Appellant's petition. Appellant timely appeals from that order.

¶ 6 The trial court filed a 1925(a) opinion on December 12, 2007. In the opinion, the trial court stated that the VOJO fee imposed on Appellant was a statutorily authorized informal adjustment. (See Trial Ct. Op., 12/31/07, at 2). We disagree.

¶ 7 Whether the trial court had authority to impose a fee on Appellant in the instant case is a question of law. With regard to questions of law, this Court's scope of review is plenary and the standard of review is de novo. See Commonwealth v. Leidig, 956 A.2d 399, 403 (Pa. 2008).

¶ 8 Appellant argues that the trial court had no authority to impose a VOJO fee on him because (1) informal adjustments cannot be imposed after a juvenile petition has been filed, and (2) he never consented to the informal adjustment. Additionally, Appellant argues that the trial court erred by placing the burden of proving actual innocence on him at the VOJO fee waiver petition hearing.

¶ 9 Appellant's first argument is that trial courts cannot impose informal adjustments after a juvenile petition has been filed. While we decline to accept this argument as a definitive statement of the law, we find that the trial court did not have statutory authority to impose an informal adjustment on Appellant in the instant case.

¶ 10 The Juvenile Act, 42 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 6301-6365, "encompasses the entire statutory scope of authority and discretion of the juvenile court to exercise jurisdiction over children as defined by the act." Commonwealth v. J.H.B., 760 A.2d 27, 30 (Pa. Super. 2000), appeal denied, 771 A.2d 1280 (Pa. 2001). Section 6323 addresses "Informal Adjustment," but does not specifically define the term, nor explicitly state when an informal adjustment may be ordered.*fn3 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6323. Rather, § 6323(a)(1) simply mandates what actions probation officers dealing with a "dependent child" as defined by § 6302(1), (2), (3), (4), (5), and (7) "shall" take "[b]efore a petition is filed," while § 6323(a)(2) lists what actions "may" be taken by probation officers "in the case of a delinquent child, or a dependent child" as defined by § 6302(6). 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6323(a)(1), (2). Subsection (f) provides that the terms and conditions of an informal adjustment may include "contribution to a restitution fund established by the president judge of the court of common pleases pursuant to § 6352(a)(5)." 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6323(f).

¶ 11 Section 6323 does not define "delinquent child." However, § 6302 provides that "[t]he following words and phrases when used in this chapter shall have, unless the context clearly indicates otherwise, the meanings given to them in this section" and then proceeds to define "delinquent child" as a child "whom the court has found to have committed a delinquent act. . . ." 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6302. The Official Comment to § 6302 explains that the definition of "delinquent child" derives from Section 2(3) of the Uniform Act where it is stated, in part that . . . "[b]efore the child can be characterized as a 'delinquent child' he must be found (1) to have committed a 'delinquent act' and (2) to be in need of treatment or rehabilitation. The first finding is made in the adjudicative hearing on the merits of the allegations of delinquent acts ascribed to the child and involves all of the due process of law safeguards . . . ."

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6302 Official Comment. In Pennsylvania, an "adjudicative hearing on the merits of the allegations of delinquent acts ascribed" to a juvenile cannot occur until after a petition has been filed. Therefore, by permitting probation officers to take certain actions with regard to a "delinquent child," it is clear that § 6323(a)(2) authorizes trial courts to order an informal adjustment after a petition has been filed if the juvenile is found to be a "delinquent child" at an adjudicative hearing.*fn4 Here, however, Appellant was not adjudicated delinquent after the petition was filed. Therefore, § 6323(a)(2) did not provide statutory authority for the order,*fn5 and the order must be vacated.*fn6 See In ...


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