New Maryland Opinion on Trying Minors as Adults

In Maryland, certain circumstances can lead to a minor being tried as an adult.  The Maryland Appellate Court looked yesterday at a Hartford County case involving a minor between 14-18 and the analysis that goes into whether to try a minor as an adult.

Criminal proceedings involving minors require tough, sometimes impossible, decisions. The justice system aims to balance rehabilitation and punishment, but that is a tricky balance sometimes.  In this case, the minor sought to have the cases transferred to the juvenile court, arguing that it would be in the child’s and society’s best interest. However, the circuit court ultimately denied the motion, raising questions about the burden of proof and the decision to keep the cases in the adult court.

Facts of Rohrbaugh v. State

In this case, a 16-year-old minor faced adult charges in two separate incidents involving firearms.  The minor was charged in two separate cases, stemming from incidents in August and September 2021. The first case involved accusations of assault, firearm possession, and related offenses. These charges were based on allegations that the minor discharged a firearm during a fight between two groups of females. The second case involved charges of possession of a loaded firearm (without serial numbers) and related offenses following an incident where the minor was allegedly found to possess a firearm.

The minor faced charges as an adult in both cases.  In response to these charges, the minor filed a motion to have the cases transferred to juvenile court (called a”reverse waiver”), arguing that rehabilitation and treatment within the juvenile justice system would be more appropriate for the minor’s age and circumstances, which was denied.


He waived his right to a jury trial and proceeded to a bench trial, where he pleaded not guilty based on an agreed statement of facts. The State dismissed all but one charge, possessing a regulated firearm by a person under 21. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to five years in prison, suspending all but time served and four years of probation. Rohrbaugh appealed, arguing that the circuit court wrongly placed the burden of persuasion on him during his motion to transfer his case to juvenile court.

The court held that the burden of persuasion is placed on the juvenile in a reverse waiver hearing, in line with longstanding precedent.

Circuit Court’s Analysis

During the hearing, the court considered the five factors outlined in CP § 4-202, including the child’s age, their mental and physical condition, amenability to treatment in juvenile facilities, the nature of the alleged crimes, and public safety. The court made specific findings for each factor and ultimately decided that transferring the cases to the juvenile court would not be in the best interest of the minor or society.

Age and Mental and Physical Condition

The court acknowledged the minor’s age and noted less than four years left for monitoring under the juvenile system. It also observed the minor’s physical condition, describing them as slightly built and smaller than their peers. As for the mental condition, the court considered the minor’s experiences with depression, anger, and trauma-related disorders due to various personal and familial issues.  You would think these factors would push toward trying this young man as a juvenile.

Amenability to Treatment and Nature of the Alleged Crimes

The court highlighted that the minor had two prior suspended commitments to the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) and participated in various programs and therapy sessions. However, despite making connections with counselors, the minor reoffended twice while under DJS supervision.

The nature of the alleged crimes was also a concern, as the first incident involved discharging a firearm over a crowd during a gang-related fight, and the second involved possession of a loaded firearm at a playground.

Public Safety Considerations

The court found that the minor posed a moderate risk for future violence without recommended services, and his record of armed robbery, suspension from school for fighting, and the recent firearm incidents increased the risk to public safety.

The Court’s Final Decision

After evaluating all factors, the court ruled that transferring the cases to the juvenile court would not benefit the minor more than the resources available in the adult system. Additionally, the transfer would not reduce the likelihood of recidivism or make the minor more law-abiding. The court concluded that the minor failed to carry the burden of proof and denied the transfer motion.

Questions for Review in the Appeal

The appeal raised two main questions for review:

  1. Did the circuit court err in placing the burden of proof on the minor to show that a transfer to the juvenile court was appropriate?
  2. Did the circuit court err in denying the minor’s motion to transfer the cases to the juvenile court?

The Maryland Appellate Decision

The appellate court signed off on Judge Diane Adkins-Tobin’s analysis. The court referred to longstanding precedent that places the burden of persuasion on the juvenile in reverse waiver hearings. The court rejected the defendant’s argument, which was based on the belief that the relevant statutes were ambiguous and that policy considerations should place the burden on the State instead (in a “reverse waiver” hearing,  “the burden of demonstrating that the waiver should be exercised is carried by the party initiating it, i.e., the juvenile”).  The court maintained that the allocation of the burden of persuasion was consistent with the plain language of the relevant statutes and that its previous decisions on the matter should be followed.

In addition, the court highlighted the fact that the Maryland Legislature has not changed the statute over the past 40 years, which implies tacit approval of the court’s interpretation. This ruling highlights juveniles’ challenges when transferring their cases from adult to juvenile court and the freedom trial judges have to make that call.

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