In re J.E.

California law makes clear that a child under the age of 14 is incapable of committing a crime, unless there is clear and convincing evidence that she understood the wrongfulness of her conduct. In contravention of state law, J.E., a thirteen-year-old Black girl, was stopped by police and ultimately adjudicated delinquent based on the proximity of her age to the age of culpability and reliance on a generalization of what the court believed “most 13-year-olds know is wrong.”

Juvenile Law Center wrote an amicus letter to the California Supreme Court in support of J.E.’s Petition for Review. Our letter urged the court to grant review, arguing that the interpretation of California Penal Code Section 26 in J.E.’s case was arbitrary and racially biased. We further argued that J.E. was improperly perceived as older and more culpable for her conduct because she is Black. We also emphasized that, at thirteen years old, J.E. was not developmentally capable of regulating her emotions in stressful situations, and that she behaved as a reasonable Black child would who had no personal experience with law enforcement.

In an en banc decision, the California Supreme Court denied J.E.’s petition for review. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Liu emphasized the need for an individualized assessment of J.E.’s circumstances, instead of “lumping [her] together with ‘most 13-year-olds.’” He further noted her youth and race as relevant factors, stating that “[i]f we are to take notice of what ‘most 13-year-olds know,’ then we should also take notice of the social reality that interactions between the police and Black youth are often fraught with distrust and risk of violence.”