State v. Rodriguez

Christopher Rodriguez was charged as a Serious Youthful Offender for a crime that occurred when he was 16. He entered a plea of guilty to lesser charges, which entitled him to an amenability hearing under the New Mexico Children’s Code. The trial judge found Christopher not amenable to treatment and he was sentenced as an adult. Although the amenability hearing was inconsistent with the statute and implicated Christopher’s rights under the Children’s Code, the Court of Appeals found his guilty plea barred review of the amenability determination, and subsequently, the New Mexico Supreme Court denied certiorari.

Juvenile Law Center submitted an amicus letter in the New Mexico Supreme Court in support of Christopher Rodriguez’s Motion for Reconsideration on Denial of Certiorari. Our letter urged the court to allow the appeal because, despite a plea of guilty, children retain the right to appeal amenability proceedings for three reasons: (1) a child is not an adult criminal defendant, (2) an amenability proceeding is uniquely important and cannot be “bargained away,” and (3) a sentencing judge lacks jurisdiction to sentence a child as an adult barring a legal amenability hearing.

The New Mexico Supreme Court subsequently reversed its decision and granted certiorari to determine whether Christopher’s guilty plea barred review of the district court’s amenability determination.  Juvenile Law Center, along with Campaign for Youth Justice and The Sentencing Project, submitted an amicus brief arguing that Christopher’s appeal should not be barred for three reasons: (1) Christopher was entitled to, but did not receive, a legally compliant amenability hearing; (2) courts should allow appellate review of children’s amenability hearings because of the unique developmental characteristics and vulnerabilities of youth; and (3) appeals of amenability hearings are necessary to protect youth against the grave consequences of adult court involvement and the potential for racial bias.

On January 10, 2022, Kate Burdick, Senior Attorney at Juvenile Law Center, participated in oral argument on behalf of amici before the New Mexico Supreme Court. Her argument discussed the social science research and New Mexico Supreme Court precedent that demonstrates youth’s diminished culpability and greater capacity for change, and the relevance of these factors to a youth’s right to appeal an amenability determination.

The New Mexico Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that youth cannot waive the right to appeal the outcome of an amenability hearing. The Court relied in part on its previous decision in State v. Jones, 229 P.3d 474 (N.M. 2010), in which it held that youth cannot bargain away their right to an amenability hearing. To find that a youth could then waive their right to appeal the outcome of that amenability hearing would render Jones "pointless" and the amenability hearing mere "window dressing," the Court found. Noting that the amenability determination "implicates the interests of the child, the child's family, and society as a whole," the Court refused to reduce the amenability decision to "nothing more than an empty shell along the path to imposing an adult sentence." The Court also restated its conclusion in Jones that it was "hard-pressed to conceive of a decision that cuts closer to the core of society's interest than an election to give up on one of its children."

The Court remanded the case to the New Mexico Court of Appeals to consider the merits of Christopher’s challenges to his amenability hearing.