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Commonwealth v. B.H.

Supreme Court of Kentucky

June 14, 2018

COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY APPELLANT
v.
B.H. APPELLEE

          ON REVIEW FROM COURT OF APPEALS CASE NO. 2015-CA-000709-DG JEFFERSON CIRCUIT COURT NO. 14-XX-000013

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky Michael J. O'Connell Jefferson County Attorney Christopher Brown Special Assistant Attorney General - Assistant Jefferson County Attorney David A. Sexton Special Assistant Attorney General - Assistant Jefferson County Attorney

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Daniel T. Goyette Louisville Metro Public Defender of Counsel Elizabeth Zilberberg Louisville Metro Public Defender Bruce P. Hackett

          OPINION

          KELLER, JUSTICE

         The Commonwealth seeks discretionary review of a decision affirming the Jefferson District Court Juvenile Session's finding that B.H. was incompetent to stand trial and dismissing the charges against him. The circuit court upheld, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. We granted the Commonwealth's motion for discretionary review to consider if the Juvenile Session of the District Court (district court) acted without jurisdiction in determining B.H.'s competency. After review of the record, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND.

         B.H. was born on December 21, 1997. He has an extensive history of criminal charges, the first dating back to when he was nine years old. B.H. was still a juvenile at the time of the charges in this case. It is not necessary for us to recount the details of B.H.'s criminal record, but among the charges incident to this case were terroristic threatening, robbery, and murder.

         In 2008, when B.H. was 10 years old, following a petition charging him with first-degree sexual abuse and fourth-degree assault, Dr. David Finke was appointed to perform a competency evaluation. Dr. Finke found that B.H.'s intellectual functioning was extremely low or impaired; B.H. lacked a factual or rational understanding of the trial process; and B.H. lacked the ability to assist counsel in his defense. Dr. Finke found that B.H. was not competent to stand trial and that he would not likely gain competency within the statutory "foreseeable future" of one year.[1]

         In 2010, a plethora of charges were again brought against B.H. Dr. Finke was appointed to perform a competency evaluation. Dr. Finke again found that B.H. was not competent to stand trial.

         In 2011, after B.H. was charged for multiple new offenses, Dr. Finke performed another competency evaluation. Dr. Finke found B.H. incompetent to stand trial but stated that B.H. might gain competency within the foreseeable future due to his maturity and improved understanding of the court system. In 2012, after receiving additional charges, B.H. was found competent. Pending adjudication, B.H. was released on home incarceration.

         In December 2012, B.H. was in an automobile accident and suffered severe injuries. B.H. was admitted to the hospital with no brain activity and remained in a coma until April 2013. In September 2013, B.H. was arrested for first-degree robbery and murder that had occurred the previous October before the automobile accident. The Commonwealth moved to transfer B.H.'s case to circuit court pursuant to KRS 635.020(2) and KRS 635.020(4), the statutes for discretionary and mandatory transfer, respectively. B.H. also moved for a competency evaluation.

         The district court did not immediately address the motion to transfer but first granted B.H.'s motion for a competency evaluation. Dr. Finke performed the evaluation, detailing the effects of the automobile accident on B.H.'s physical and cognitive functioning, and found that B.H. was currently incompetent to stand trial. Dr. Finke acknowledged that it was possible for B.H. to continue to have improved brain functioning and gain competency within one year.

         Dr. Brandon C. Dennis conducted a pediatric neuropsychological evaluation on B.H. and he filed his report with the court. Intelligence testing generated a full-scale IQ of 46. Dr. Dennis concluded that even though B.H. could continue to make subtle improvements within the next year, he would have persistent cognitive impairments, indefinitely.

         The district court then conducted a competency hearing. After hearing from Dr. Finke and Dr. Dennis, the court found B.H. incompetent to stand trial and unlikely to attain competency in the foreseeable future. The pending charges were dismissed without prejudice. The Commonwealth appealed the finding of incompetency to the Jefferson Circuit Court, arguing that the district court's, decision was not supported by substantial evidence. The circuit court affirmed, holding that there was substantial evidence to support the finding.

         The Commonwealth then moved the Court of Appeals for discretionary review. There, the Commonwealth abandoned its argument that the district court's decision was clearly erroneous and instead argued that the court acted without subject matter jurisdiction when it decided the issue of competency. The Court of Appeals held that the district court had subject matter jurisdiction over B.H.'s case, and the Commonwealth had confused subject matter jurisdiction with particular case jurisdiction. Because particular case jurisdiction is subject to waiver, and the Commonwealth failed to object to the competency determination at any stage of litigation prior to discretionary review with the Court of Appeals, the Court of Appeals held that the Commonwealth had waived its right to contest any error.

         The Commonwealth then moved this Court for discretionary review, which we granted. We agree with the courts below and affirm.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW.

         Jurisdictionis a question of law, and our review is de novo. Caesar's Riverboat Casino, LLC v. Beach, 336 S.W.3d 51, 54 (Ky. 2011) (citing Appalachian Regional Healthcare, Inc. v. Coleman, 239 S.W.3d 49, 53-54 (Ky. 2007)). Furthermore, "[s]tatutory interpretation raises pure questions of law, so our review is de novo, meaning we afford no deference to the decisions below." Department of Revenue, Finance and Admin. Cabinet v. Cox Interior, Inc., 400 S.W.3d 240, 242 (Ky. 2013) (citing Commonwealth v. Love, 334 S.W.3d92, 93(Ky. 2011)).

         III. ANALYSIS.

         A. The Juvenile Session of the District Court had subject matter jurisdiction to conduct a competency hearing.

         The Commonwealth's argument before us is that the Juvenile Session of the Jefferson District Court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to consider the issue of B.H.'s competency. According to the Commonwealth, once it filed a motion to transfer, the district court was limited to holding a transfer hearing pursuant to KRS 635.020(4) which states, in pertinent part:

Any other provision of KRS 610 to 645 to the contrary notwithstanding, if a child charged with a felony in which a firearm, whether functional or not, was used in the commission of the offense had attained the age of fourteen(l4) years at the time of the commission of the. alleged offense, he shall be transferred to the Circuit Court for trial as an adult if, following a preliminary hearing, the District Court finds probable cause to believe that the child committed a felony, that a firearm was used in the commission of that felony, and that the child was fourteen (14) years of age or older at the time of the commission of the alleged felony.

         The Commonwealth maintains that, because B.H. was charged with a felony in which a firearm was used and B.H. was fourteen years old at the time of the offense, the district court could only conduct a preliminary hearing regarding probable cause as to these enumerated factors. In essence, the Commonwealth argues the court's subject matter jurisdiction was limited to the preliminary hearing required for transfer. The Commonwealth's argument fails, however, as our jurisprudence on both jurisdictional and constitutional issues does not support the Commonwealth's proposition.

         1. The General Assembly has vested district courts with jurisdiction over juvenile cases.

         The juvenile code assigns jurisdiction to the juvenile session of the district court for "any person who at the time of committing a public offense was under the age of eighteen (18) years. . . ." Commonwealth v. S.K., 253 S.W.3d 486, 487 (Ky. 2008) (internal citations omitted). The code is intended to provide safeguards for juveniles. Johnson v. Commonwealth, 606 S.W.2d 622, 623 (Ky. 1980). The jurisdiction of district courts is exclusive relating to minors unless jurisdiction is vested by law in some other court. See KRS 24A.130.

         A juvenile can be classified as a youthful offender and transferred to the circuit court. The "circuit court acquires jurisdiction over a case in which a juvenile is accused of violating the penal code only ifihe juvenile is alleged to be a youthful offender and the district court transfers the child to circuit court:" Jackson v. Commonwealth,363 S.W.3d 11, 17 (Ky. 2012) (emphasis added). Before the circuit court acquires jurisdiction, the district court must hold a preliminary hearing. Id. "Only after the district court satisfies these ...


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