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L.H. v. Commonwealth

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

May 17, 2019



          BRIEFS FOR APPELLANT: Renee Sara Vandenwallbake Frankfort, Kentucky

          BRIEF FOR APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky Courtney J. Hightower Assistant Attorney General Frankfort, Kentucky



          ACREE, JUDGE

         We granted discretionary review in this case to address Appellant L.H.'s appeal of the Hopkins Circuit Court's September 15, 2016 order affirming the Hopkins Juvenile Court's April 18, 2016 disposition order committing L.H. to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). We affirm.


         Twelve-year-old L.H. was charged with four crimes between October 2015 and March 2016. He ultimately pleaded guilty to all four charges.

         In October 2015, the Commonwealth filed a petition[2] charging L.H. with third-degree burglary, a Class D felony if committed by an adult. KRS[3]511.040(2). The charge stemmed from L.H. breaking into and stealing items from a business in Webster County, Kentucky, in October 2015. He pleaded guilty to the charge on February 23, 2016, in Webster District Court, and an adjudication order was entered reflecting his plea. The Webster District Court referred the matter to Hopkins County for disposition.

         In November 2015, the Commonwealth filed a second petition charging L.H. with the unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, a misdemeanor. KRS 514.100(2). The charge stemmed from L.H. stealing his uncle's vehicle and attempting to leave in the vehicle undetected. L.H. pleaded guilty on March 28, 2016, and the juvenile court entered an adjudication order reflecting his plea.

         In January 2016, the Commonwealth filed a third petition charging L.H. with second-degree disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor. KRS 525.060(2). The charge stemmed from L.H.'s disruptive behavior at South Hopkins Middle School, where he was kicking and throwing chairs, refusing to follow directives, and challenging the authority of teachers and law enforcement. Before adjudication of that petition, in March 2016, the Commonwealth filed a fourth petition charging L.H. with three additional offenses in an unrelated case: second-degree wanton endangerment; no operator's license; and reckless driving. These charges stemmed from L.H. driving his dirt bike at a high rate of speed through an elementary school parking lot when parents were dropping off children for school.

         The juvenile court held an adjudication hearing on April 11, 2016, to resolve petitions three and four. L.H. pleaded guilty to second-degree disorderly conduct (petition three), and second-degree disorderly conduct, as amended from second-degree wanton endangerment, and operating a motor vehicle without a license (petition four).[4] The juvenile court entered two adjudication orders, the first adjudicating his guilty plea to petition three, and the second adjudicating his guilty pleas to petition four.

         L.H. appeared before the juvenile court on April 28, 2016, for disposition of all four adjudications. In discussing the option of commitment to the DJJ, the juvenile court candidly acknowledged that L.H. was repeatedly getting into trouble, including L.H.'s daily behavior indiscretions at school and an incident the day before the hearing when L.H. drank his mother's vodka with four other boys at 4:00 a.m. The Commonwealth argued commitment was in L.H.'s best interest because it would be dangerous for him to remain in the community. The DJJ did not object but questioned whether L.H. met the prerequisites for commitment. The juvenile court entered an order committing L.H. to the DJJ. L.H. filed a motion to reconsider, which the juvenile court denied.

         L.H. then appealed to the Hopkins Circuit Court. He argued: the juvenile court was not authorized to order him to DJJ commitment because he did not have three prior adjudications, as required by KRS 635.060(4)(a)(1); the juvenile court did not attempt less restrictive alternatives prior to committing L.H., as required by KRS 600.010(2)(c); and L.H.'s guilty pleas were not made knowingly or intelligently pursuant to Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 239, 89 S.Ct. 1709, 1710, 23 L.Ed.2d 274 (1969) and D.R. v. Commonwealth, 64 S.W.3d 292 (Ky. App. 2001), because the juvenile court did not inform L.H. that his pleas could result in his commitment. The circuit court affirmed the juvenile court's disposition decision. Upon L.H.'s request, this Court granted discretionary review. We will discuss additional facts in the course of our analysis.


         L.H. presents two arguments on appeal. First, that the juvenile court was not permitted to commit him to the DJJ because he did not meet the statutory standard for commitment set forth in KRS 635.060(4)(a)(1). And, second, that his guilty plea was not knowingly and intelligently made. We disagree.

         A. KRS 635.060(4)(a)(1)

         L.H.'s primary argument on appeal is that commitment was not authorized by KRS 635.060(4)(a)(1) because he had insufficient prior adjudications. Resolution of this claim is a matter of statutory interpretation. Questions involving statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo. Brewer v. Commonwealth, 478 S.W.3d 363, 368 (Ky. 2015).

         When interpreting a statute, our main goal "is to 'effectuate the intent of the legislature.'" Id. at 371 (quoting Commonwealth v. Plowman, 86 S.W.3d 47, 49 (Ky. 2002)). "That intent is perhaps no better expressed than through the actual text of the statute, so we look first to the words chosen by the legislature-if they are clear, they are decisive." Id. (footnote omitted). "And '[w]here the words used in a statute are clear and unambiguous and express the legislative intent, there is no room for construction and the statute must be accepted as written.'" Bell v. Bell, 423 S.W.3d 219, 223 (Ky. 2014) (citation omitted).

         KRS 635.060, the statute at issue in this case, states, in pertinent part, that the juvenile "court, at the dispositional hearing, may . . . [o]rder the child to be committed" to the custody of the DJJ if the child has been "adjudicated for an offense that would be a misdemeanor or Class D felony if committed by an adult and the child has at least three (3) prior adjudications . . . which do not arise from the same course of conduct[.]" KRS 635.060(4)(a)(1). It is undisputed that, at the time of disposition, L.H. had four adjudications, each of which arose from a different course of conduct. Three of those adjudications were for misdemeanors, and one adjudication, third-degree burglary, was for a Class D felony, if committed by an adult. ...

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