Juvenile court judges can throw out criminal charges against teens before their arraignments, ensuring that the alleged crimes are never entered on their records and have no impact on their futures, a divided Supreme Judicial Court ruled Tuesday.
In a 4 to 2 ruling, the state’s highest court concluded that the judges must have the power to act in what they consider to be the “best interests of the child” because Massachusetts law treats juvenile offenders not as criminals, but as children in need of direction.
“Protecting a child from the stigma of being perceived to be a criminal and from the collateral consequences of a delinquency charge is important even where the complaint is supported by the evidence,” Justice Ralph Gants wrote for the majority. “It is even more important where the charge is not supported by probable cause.”
The two dissenting judges, citing longstanding court rules for criminal cases, said juveniles should be arraigned before charges are dropped. To do otherwise would be to take an ill-advised end run around existing procedures, they argued.
“The rules of criminal procedure contemplate a motion practice that does not become engaged until the arraignment and which unfolds after arraignment,’’ Justice Francis X. Spina wrote in his dissent, which was backed by Justice Robert Cordy. “The reasoning of the court for hearing a motion to dismiss before arraignment is contrary to the procedure set forth in the rules.”
The case grew out of an incident involving a Boston public high school student who was given the pseudonym Humberto H. by the court. In 2001, Humberto, who reeked of marijuana, was stopped as he walked into school by the school’s dean and a school police officer. The teen was searched. He was wearing shorts under his pants and inside the pocket of those shorts, authorities found five bags of marijuana. He was charged with marjuana distribution.
When he appeared in Juvenile Court, the judge wanted to toss the case before he was arraigned because he considered the charge unwarranted and feared the teen, who had no prior record, would have an entry on his criminal record viewable by authorities in the future.
Emily A. Cardy, an attorney for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, who represented Humberto, praised the majority’s conclusion.
Cardy said the principle endorsed would be a boon to teens. “This is a wonderful and important result for our clients,” she said. The majority of the court found there was not enough evidence to charge Humberto with trying to sell the marijuana, citing the fact that the teen did not have a cellphone, cash, a scale, pager, or empty plastic bags, which are usually found on drug dealers.
But Spina, in another section of the dissent that expressed his views alone, wrote that the majority might have created a loophole that teen drug dealers can use to escape criminal prosecution.
“I am concerned,” Spina wrote, “that the court has given juveniles willing to distribute marijuana in school a blueprint for minimizing accountability: keep it at one ounce or less, and keep the number of baggies under six, and at most you are looking at simple possession, a civil infraction.”
While Humberto H.’s case set new rules for the juvenile court, he will not benefit. Humberto was arraigned, and the charge was then dismissed — and a criminal record was created for the teen that shows he was arrested on marijuana distribution charges.
Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.