SEATTLE — The Washington state Supreme Court on Thursday threw out the lengthy sentences of two young men who were teenagers when they stole candy and cellphones on Halloween night in 2012, but were charged as adults.
The justices said the sentencing judge should have taken the boys’ ages, 16 and 17, into account “because ‘children are different’ under the Eight Amendment.”
The court upheld the convictions but ordered new sentencings.
A message sent to the Pierce County prosecutor’s office seeking comment on the ruling was not immediately returned.
Vanessa Hernandz, the Washington Youth Policy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union, praised the ruling, saying children should not automatically be treated like adults.
“We hope this decision spurs the Washington Legislature to take a hard look at our state’s outdated laws that lead to the automatic prosecution of juveniles in adult court, and leads to the development of solutions that recognize the needs and potential of children,” she said.
The boys had met some friends on Halloween 2012 and drank vodka, smoked pot and play basketball before using a white hockey mask and silver revolver to take candy from two trick-or-treaters in Tacoma. They moved on and demanded candy and cellphones from another group. They later hid in a broken-down Cadillac and ate the treats.
They were caught and a police officer who tested the gun found that it contained the wrong ammunition, which would have kept it from firing.
The boys were charged with robbery plus nine firearms enhancements. The robbery charged triggered a Washington state law that requires the case to move from juvenile to adult court without a hearing to determine whether the transfer was appropriate.
They were convicted on several of the charges and the 17-year-old was sentenced to 45 years and the 16-year-old got 40 years.
Their lawyers appealed, arguing that children are different from adults and the long adult sentences and mandatory firearm enhancements were unlawful.
Seven of the justices agreed, saying their recent decisions “explicitly hold that the Eight Amendment to the U.S. Constitution compels us to recognize that children are different.”
That amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, requires trial courts to use discretion regardless of whether the youth is tried in juvenile or adult court, the justices said.
Two justices agreed that the boys should be resentenced, but said they based their opinion on “nonconsitutional grounds.” The trial court had the discretion to depart from mandatory sentencing enhancements in the state law when they’re imposing an exceptional sentence, the two justices said.
The high court sent the cases back to the lower court for resentencing.