Commonwealth v. Taylor

New Decision

Nazeer Taylor was certified (transferred) from juvenile court to adult court for criminal prosecution based in part on his assertion of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The juvenile court concluded that Taylor’s decision not to admit culpability to delinquent acts allegedly committed when he was 15 was evidence that he was not amenable to treatment. 

Juvenile Law Center filed an amicus brief on behalf of Taylor in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Our brief argued that certification proceedings must comport with due Process and any application of the Pennsylvania transfer statute that requires waiver of a constitutional right is invalid. We further argued that the trial court’s reasoning that Taylor’s refusal to incriminate himself required certification was a per se abuse of discretion and any reliance on an unconstitutional consideration invalidates the transfer decision even if other factors were also considered.

In an important win the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that “a minor’s refusal to confess to an act for which he or she might be criminally prosecuted as an adult may not be considered when deciding whether to certify a case for transfer between juvenile and adult court.” The court elaborated that “the Juvenile Act does not countenance the drawing of an adverse inference from a juvenile’s refusal to admit to the offenses with which the juvenile is charged. When faced with a critical decision such as whether to certify a juvenile for transfer to an adult court for prosecution, a court may not condition its ruling upon the minor’s assertions of innocence or invocation of the Fifth Amendment. To do so would place too high a cost on the juvenile’s constitutional privilege against compulsory self-incrimination, guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment.” The court further held that “[b]ecause the juvenile court exacted a price for Taylor’s exercise of his rights under the Fifth Amendment, its decision reflects a misapplication of the law, and thus an abuse of discretion.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court remanded the case to the Pennsylvania Superior Court to determine the applicability of the harmless error doctrine and the relief available to Mr. Taylor. The Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the juvenile court’s error was structural and cannot be declared harmless, and that the only proper remedy for Mr. Taylor is discharge. The Commonwealth appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. 

Juvenile Law Center joined The Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project, The Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, and attorney Jim Davy of All Rise Trial & Appellate in filing an amicus brief in support of Mr. Taylor in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Our brief argued that a certification error that pushes a child into adult detention is not harmless, and that release is the only appropriate remedy. We emphasized the substantial and unique harms that children experience when detained in adult facilities, the harms of lawless certifications to children’s liberty interests, and the racial disparities in charging, transferring, and sentencing youth in adult court that underscore the stakes of the error.  

In a win for youth, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s decision, holding that the juvenile court’s error was structural, not harmless, and that discharge of Mr. Taylor is the only available remedy.