North Carolina Department of Justice
North Carolina Department of Justice
North Carolina Department of Justice
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April 4, 1978


Courts; Juveniles; Mental Health; Applicability of Article 56, Chapter 15A to Juvenile Proceedings.

Requested By:

Dr. Lenore Behar Chief, Children and Youth Services Division of Mental Health Services


Do the provisions of Article 56, Chapter 15A of the General Statutes of North Carolina apply to children who are the subject of juvenile proceeding authorized by Article 23, Chapter 7A of the General Statutes?


No, except in instances where a child has reached his 14th birthday and has been transferred to the superior court division for criminal trial as an adult.

Chapter 15A is entitled "Criminal Procedure Act". It was introduced into the General Assembly as H.B. 256, entitled "An Act to Amend the Laws Relating to Pretrial Criminal Procedure."

The purpose of Article 56 and the limitations on its applicability are set forth in G.S. 15A-1001 (a):

"(a) No person may be tried, convicted, sentenced, or punished for a crime when by reason of mental illness or defect he is unable to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to comprehend his own situation in reference to the proceedings, or to assist in his defense in a rational or reasonable manner. This condition is hereinafter referred to as "incapacity to proceed."" (Emphasis supplied).

Succededing sections within Article 56 make provision for determining the capacity of the "defendant" to proceed, with virtually each section using the quoted term. Succeeding sections also refer to "criminal proceedings" (G.S. 15A-1005), "the maximum period of confinement for the crime or crimes charged" (G.S. 15A-1008(2)), and the appropriate termination date for cases involving misdemeanor and felony charges, respectively (G.S. 15A-1008(3)). Thus, by its language and legislative history, there can be no real doubt that Article 56 refers only to criminal procedings.

On the other hand, Article 23 is entitled "Jurisdiction and Procedure Applicable to Children"; it is a part of Chapter 7A, entitled "Judicial Department". The purpose of that Article is very succinctly stated in the first sentence of the first section thereof, as follows:

"The purpose of this Article is to provide procedures and resources for children within the

juvenile jurisdiction of the district court which are different in purpose and philosophy from the procedures applicable to criminal cases involving adults." G.S. 7A-277 (Emphasis Supplied).

The remainder of that section sets the tone for proceedings involving juveniles. Succeeding sections detail in commendably simple language, step by step, juvenile proceedings carefully tailored to achieve the legislative purpose described in G.S. 7A-277. Significantly, the language of G.S. 7A-280 pointedly demonstrates the intent of the General Assembly. That section creates an exception for a situation involving a felony committed by a child who has achieved his fourteenth birthday. In that situation, the statute permits (or, in a capital case, requires) the juvenile court judge, upon a finding of probable cause, to ". . . transfer the case to the superior court division for trial as in the case of adults." (Emphasis supplied). This is the only exception to following the specified juvenile procedures which the statutes permit.

Not surprisingly, the North Carolina Supreme Court has consistently recognized the true nature of juvenile proceedings in the following unequivocal language:

"Juvenile proceedings, however, stand in a different light. Whatever may be their proper classification, they certainly are not "criminal prosecutions." Nor is a finding of delinquency in a juvenile proceeding synonymous with a "conviction of a crime."" In Re Burrus, 275 N.C. 517, 529 (1969), aff'd, sub. nom. McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971).

Further, while noting the multiple "valid distinctions" between adults and children, the North Carolina Supreme Court has further explicated as follows:

"The purpose of the Juvenile Court Act "is not for the punishment of offenders but for the salvation of children" . . .

The Act treats "delinquent children not as criminals, but as wards and undertakes . . . to give them the control and environment that may lead to their reformation and enable them to become law-abiding and useful citizens, a support and not a hindrance to the commonwealth."" In Re Walker, 282 N.C. 28, 39 (1972).

In short, the "noncriminal nature of juvenile hearings and the nonpenal nature of the confinement at risk" had been repeatedly noted by North Carolina Appellate Courts. In Re Byers, 34 N.C.App. 113, 115 (1977). This is not to say, of course, that juveniles are not entitled to the many basic due process and fairness safeguards appropriate to such proceedings. See In Re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967); In Re Burrus, supra. Ironically, too, in juvenile proceedings there is always involved an individual who, because of his age is statutorily incompetent for many purposes. See G.S. 48A-2. However, in any event, it is abundantly clear that Article 56, Chapter 15A has no connection with juvenile proceedings conducted under Article 23, Chapter 7A.

Rufus L. Edmisten Attorney General

William F. O'Connell Special Deputy Attorney General