In a case earlier this month, the Fourth District Court of Appeal of Florida in R.J. v. State, 2014 Fla. App. LEXIS 10122 (Fla. 4th DCA 2014) held that the State is not required to prove a juvenile’s age to vest subject matter jurisdiction over the case in thejuvenile division of the circuit court in Florida.
During a trial, the appellant was adjudicated delinquent in Florida for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, meaning they violated a criminal law as a youth and therefore their sentencing would not be as harsh as if they were found guilty of a crime as an adult. The State elicited testimony from the arresting officer that the appellant said his birthday was February 13, 1996, making him sixteen years old at the time the offense occurred. There was no other attempt to confirm the appellant’s age. The appellant argues on appeal that the State failed to establish he was under the age of eighteen at the time of the offense, leaving the circuit court without jurisdiction.
According to the Florida Constitution, the circuit courts have subject matter jurisdiction over felony charges and misdemeanor, and felony charges committed by juveniles. They also have plenary jurisdiction such that nothing is intended to be outside their jurisdiction except which is clearly and specially stated. The 4th DCA explained that in the criminal context, this means that circuit courts may hear all cases except adult misdemeanor offenses. See Fla. Stat. § 34.01(1)(a); 985.0301(1) (2012). The statutes provide explicitly that county courts have original jurisdiction in all misdemeanor cases not cognizable by the circuit courts, and the circuit courts have exclusive original jurisdiction of proceedings in which a child is alleged to have committed a delinquent act or violation of law. Therefore, jurisdiction within juvenile proceedings are not limited by the nature of the act, but instead are limited by the age of the participant.
To avoid extremely long dockets and overwhelming cases, the circuit courts in Florida are divided into divisions, with each division handling certain types of cases. Moreover, the 4th DCA extrapolated that this fractioning is strictly for efficiency purposes and has no effect on a circuit court’s subject matter jurisdiction. This is because all circuit court judges have the same jurisdiction, and the various divisions do not limit the judge’s particular jurisdiction.
Consequently, in the juvenile circuit court “division,” whether a child falls into the age requirement of the juvenile court, meaning below the age of 18, is not a matter of subject matter jurisdiction, but one of divisional jurisdiction. In other words, whether the juvenile is in the correct circuit court “division,” not whether the circuit court overall has jurisdiction over the juvenile at all.
In the present case, the appellant was charged with a felony, and therefore the circuit court was the right place for him. A matter of juvenile “divisional” jurisdiction within the circuit court does not need to be proven at trial by the State. The petition for delinquency alleged the appellant was under the age of eighteen. If the appellant disputed this fact, it was incumbent upon him to have the case transferred to the criminal court. The 4th DCA distinguished this determination from the requirement that the State establish “venue,” since criminal defendants have a constitutional right to be tried in the county where the crime took place. See Fla. Const. Art. I, § 16.
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