Benjamin L., In re

Citation685 N.Y.S.2d 400,92 N.Y.2d 660,708 N.E.2d 156
Parties, 708 N.E.2d 156 In the Matter of BENJAMIN L., a Person Alleged to be a Juvenile Delinquent, Appellant.
Decision Date11 February 1999
CourtNew York Court of Appeals


In this case we are asked to consider whether the constitutional right to a speedy trial, which is afforded to every defendant in criminal prosecutions in New York State, should be extended to juveniles in delinquency proceedings.

On July 7, 1994 Benjamin L., a 15 year old, was arrested and detained overnight after he allegedly menaced a delivery person and attempted to steal Chinese food from him in Yonkers. The following day the director of the Woodfield Detention Cottage submitted a pre-petition detention application to Family Court pursuant to sections 307.3 and 307.4 of the Family Court Act. At a hearing held on the same day Family Court denied the application, remanded appellant to his mother's care and ordered him to observe a 10:00 P.M. curfew.

Over one year later, on August 2, 1995, the Westchester County Attorney's office, acting in its capacity as presentment agency, filed a petition relating to the July 7, 1994 incident. The petition alleged that Benjamin, along with other youths, committed acts which, if committed by an adult, would constitute the crimes of attempted robbery in the second degree and menacing in the third degree. Appellant made an initial appearance with counsel on August 8, 1995 and entered a denial. The matter was adjourned to September 13, 1995 for a fact-finding hearing. On August 30, 1995, appellant moved to dismiss the petition, challenging its sufficiency and alleging that the delay in filing the petition violated his statutory right to a speedy hearing as codified in Family Court Act §§ 310.2, 320.2 and 340.1, or, in the alternative, his constitutional right to due process pursuant to People v. Singer, 44 N.Y.2d 241, 405 N.Y.S.2d 17, 376 N.E.2d 179.

Family Court denied Benjamin's motion to dismiss without the benefit of a hearing. Relying on People v. Taranovich, 37 N.Y.2d 442, 373 N.Y.S.2d 79, 335 N.E.2d 303, the court concluded that the delay did not "rise to the level of a speedy trial violation;" the court did not discuss Benjamin's statutory speedy hearing arguments. At the conclusion of the fact-finding and disposition hearings, Family Court adjudicated appellant a juvenile delinquent and placed him on probation for one year. Appellant raised the same speedy trial/due process contentions on appeal. The Appellate Division affirmed, also basing its decision on Taranovich without reference to the statutory contentions. We granted Benjamin leave to appeal and now reverse and remit the matter to Family Court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

Since its inception the juvenile justice system has employed procedural mechanisms different from those embodied in its adult counterpart. Juvenile proceedings were traditionally viewed as special proceedings that were not subject to the provisions of either the State or Federal Constitution. While adult criminal proceedings were generally regarded as punitive and adversarial, juvenile proceedings were considered rehabilitative and informal in nature (see, e.g., In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 87 S.Ct. 1428, 18 L.Ed.2d 527; Matter of Randy K., 77 N.Y.2d 398, 409, 568 N.Y.S.2d 562, 570 N.E.2d 210; Besharov and Sobie, Practice Commentaries, McKinney's Cons. Laws of N.Y., Book 29A, Family Ct. Act § 301.1, at 13-17; Smith and Dabiri, The Judicial Role in the Treatment of Juvenile Delinquents, 3 J.L. & Pol'y 347 [1995]; Butts, Speedy Trial in the Juvenile Court, 23 Am.J.Crim.L. 515 [1996] ). Thus, due to the distinctive character and goals of juvenile adjudications, juveniles were not accorded the same procedural rights as adults for much of this century.

The landmark Supreme Court decision In re Gault fundamentally altered the constitutional parameters of juvenile proceedings. In Gault the Supreme Court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires States to observe certain fundamental procedural rights in juvenile proceedings. 1 Although the Court in Gault and several earlier decisions extended due process protections to juveniles that were usually only afforded to adults (see, Haley v. Ohio, 332 U.S. 596, 68 S.Ct. 302, 92 L.Ed. 224; Gallegos v. Colorado, 370 U.S. 49, 82 S.Ct. 1209, 8 L.Ed.2d 325; Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541, 86 S.Ct. 1045, 16 L.Ed.2d 84), it did not transpose every constitutional protection necessary in a criminal prosecution to juvenile delinquency proceedings. That equivalency might frustrate the special purpose of juvenile proceedings, which differ in significant ways from their criminal counterpart (see, McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528, 91 S.Ct. 1976, 29 L.Ed.2d 647; Kent v. United States, supra ).

In keeping with the focus established by Gault, the Legislature amended the Family Court Act to add specific procedural rights for juveniles (see, Matter of Frank C., 70 N.Y.2d 408, 413, 522 N.Y.S.2d 89, 516 N.E.2d 1203). The revised procedural rules include specific time limitations in the Family Court Act to govern each stage of the proceeding from arrest through final disposition (id.). The express purpose of these provisions is to assure swift and certain adjudication at all phases of the delinquency proceeding (Mem. in Support of Assembly Bill A 7974-A, Bill Jacket, L.1982, ch. 920, as cited in Matter of Frank C., supra ). We have recognized that concern in People ex rel. Guggenheim v. Mucci, 32 N.Y.2d 307, 344 N.Y.S.2d 944, 298 N.E.2d 109 and later reiterated it in Matter of Frank C. and Matter of Willie E., 88 N.Y.2d 205, 644 N.Y.S.2d 130, 666 N.E.2d 1043.

Benjamin argues that the Family Court Act prohibits specified delays between the filing of the pre-petition detention application and the commencement of a fact-finding hearing. He contends that a pre-petition detention application should be equated with a petition for the purpose of commencing the statutory speedy hearing clock. Contrary to Benjamin's contention, it cannot be inferred from the language of article 3 or the procedural structure of juvenile proceedings that a pre-petition detention application can be equated with a petition to bring into play the time limits set forth in article 3.

Family Court Act § 310.1(1) states that a proceeding to adjudicate a person a juvenile delinquent is originated by the filing of a petition. A pre-petition detention application differs in form, substance and purpose from a petition. A pre-petition detention application is filed by the detention facility (Family Ct. Act §§ 307.3, 307.4), whereas a petition is filed by the presentment agency (Family Ct. Act § 311.1[1] ). Under a pre-petition detention application, a youth is subject to a quick yet careful determination by Family Court on the detention issue (Family Ct. Act §§ 307.3, 307.4). The statute does provide for the release of a juvenile, held in custody following the detention hearing, when a petition is not filed within four days of completion of the detention hearing (see, Family Ct. Act § 307.4[7] ). The statute thus explicitly prescribes a procedural difference between pre-petition detention and commencement of the proceeding.

Moreover, while the purpose of a pre-petition detention application is primarily to determine whether a youth should be detained prior to the filing of a petition (Family Ct. Act § 307.4[4] ), a petition is "a written accusation by an authorized presentment agency" that formally commences the juvenile proceeding (Family Ct. Act § 311.1[1] ). Sections 310.2, 320.2 and 340.1 apply to time periods after the initial petition is filed. 2 Thus, the statute clearly mandates that the filing of the petition by the presentment agency signals the commencement of a juvenile proceeding.

Appellant's reliance on the language and policy of two of our "speedy hearing" cases--Matter of Willie E., 88 N.Y.2d 205, 644 N.Y.S.2d 130, 666 N.E.2d 1043, supra and Matter of Frank C., 70 N.Y.2d 408, 522 N.Y.S.2d 89, 516 N.E.2d 1203, supra,--misses the mark. In both cases a petition was filed; the Court was dealing with a specific statutorily measured time frame for a fact-finding hearing.

Although article 3 of the Family Court Act establishes specific time limitations at each stage of the proceeding, there is no statutory time limitation for the period between filing a pre-petition detention application and filing a petition itself when the juvenile is not at a detention facility (see, Besharov and Sobie, Practice Commentaries, McKinney's Cons. Laws of N.Y., Book 29A, Family Ct. Act § 310.2, at 110-111). The statute simply does not offer a remedy for Benjamin (see, Matter of Jose R., 83 N.Y.2d 388, 394, 610 N.Y.S.2d 937, 632 N.E.2d 1260).

Benjamin also contends that the delay in question violated his State constitutional right to due process. Although New York does not have a constitutional speedy trial provision, we have long held that in criminal prosecutions an unreasonable delay in prosecuting a defendant following an arrest can constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause of our Constitution (People v. Staley, 41 N.Y.2d 789, 791, 396 N.Y.S.2d 339, 364 N.E.2d 1111).

The right to a speedy trial is derived from an overarching interest in ensuring that all defendants are treated according to fair and reasonable procedures (see, Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 518, 92 S.Ct. 2182, 33 L.Ed.2d 101). Moreover, there are societal interests in providing a speedy trial that exist separate from the...

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