A person who is indicted in court after reaching adulthood for a crime committed when he was a minor cannot be punished as an adult, the Guam Supreme Court said in a landmark ruling issued on Tuesday.
The Supreme Court justices vacated the conviction and five-year sentence imposed by the trial court on Eugene Benavente Gomia, who was belatedly charged on Sept. 15, 2015 with sex offenses when he was 19 for acts committed when he was 13 and 14 years old.
Gomia, who was sentenced on Nov. 16, 2015, pleaded “no contest” to two counts of second degree criminal sexual conduct “committed against two victims who were both under the age of 14 at the time,” according to court records.
“This case presents a unique set of facts,” the court said, noting that, “No juvenile delinquency proceedings were brought against him for these acts.”
Since he was an adult at the time he was charged, Gomia was prosecuted outside of the jurisdiction of the Family Division, which handles juvenile cases.
“Gomia, now an adult, argues that his sentence is unlawful because it violates his Fifth Amendment right to due process and constitutes (a retroactive) application of law,” the court said.
While he did not challenge the allegations leveled against him, Gomia claimed that “he did not have notice that his actions, committed when he was thirteen and fourteen years old, would hold a punishment that is greater than that available to the Family Division or for any sanction that is beyond his 21st birthday.”
The Supreme Court cited a Guam law, which provides the mechanism by which the Superior Court can obtain “adult” jurisdiction over a minor.
“This process requires ‘certification’ by the Family Division to transfer jurisdiction,” the Supreme Court said, citing the amended Public Law 17-27, which authorizes the trial court to exercise its discretion to “certify such child for proper criminal proceedings to any court.”
The law gives the trial court jurisdiction over “a child who is 16 or older at the time he committed the offense” and facing prosecution as an adult “for any act which would constitute a felony of the first or second degree along with any acts which are misdemeanors or felonies of the third degree.”
The Supreme Court noted, however, that the law identifies only homicide as the crime that falls in this category, thus limiting “the classes of cases that fall within and outside of the Superior Court’s adjudicatory authority.”
“The legislature’s inclusion of homicide, and only homicide, as the type of offense for which a minor under the age of 16 may be tried in an adult criminal proceeding leads us to conclude that the legislature intentionally excluded all other types of offenses,” the ruling stated. “This court is constrained by that language. It is not within the province of the courts to stretch the law to apply to circumstances clearly not provided for by the legislature; to the contrary, decisions of whether to extend the law to cover circumstances such as this lie solely within the authority of the legislature.”
The Supreme Court pointed out that the prosecution did not pursue delinquency proceedings against Gomia in the Family Division of the Superior Court “while he could still have been brought under its jurisdiction.”
“This nuance may have been specifically contemplated by the legislature, i.e., to recognize the youthful characteristics of children,” the Supreme Court said. “[T]he distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes.”