PIERRE, S.D. A Winner teenager was improperly convicted in juvenile court for threatening a classmate involved in a long-standing playground dispute, the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Although the decision overturns the boy's convictions as a delinquent and child in need of supervision, the justices said they were troubled that he was held for 66 days until his trial. Legally, he could not be held for more than 24 hours.
Tripp County officials could not be immediately reached to explain the detention. State law allows juveniles to be held longer than 24 hours before trials only if they have violated court orders.
The eighth-grade boy, identified only by the initials C.C.H. because of juvenile court confidentiality, calmly told his teacher on Feb. 13, 2001, that he wanted to kill a classmate identified as B.C. No one else in the classroom apparently overheard the conversation, which was prompted when the teacher asked the boy why he wasn't doing his class work.
The teacher used e-mail to inform school administrators of the comment. A day later, C.C.H. again told the teacher privately that he wanted to kill B.C., and the teacher sent another e-mail to administrators. Police then were contacted, and the teen was charged with simple assault and two counts of disorderly conduct.
Dismissing two of the charges, Circuit Judge Kathleen Trandahl found C.C.H. guilty on one count of disorderly conduct, and he was declared a delinquent. Even though the prosecutor did not request it, the judge also decided C.C.H. was a child in need of supervision.
He was placed on probation and released to his parents.
Contesting his convictions, C.C.H. argued that he was not guilty of disorderly conduct and that Trandahl had no authority to declare him a child in need of supervision.
Overruling the judge, the Supreme Court said C.C.H. was within his First Amendment, free-speech rights to privately tell his teacher he wanted to kill B.C.
Although true threats are not constitutionally protected, there was little evidence to show that C.C.H. had actually threatened B.C., wrote Justice Robert A. Amundson.
"Hostility and competition among our youth is natural," he said. "It happens in competitive sports; it happens in adolescent love affairs; it happens among siblings; it is an inevitable part of growing up.
"Many of the unkind words that stem from this hostility and competition may cause others uneasiness, but most of the words are protected by the First Amendment."
Amundson also noted that school officials apparently were not too worried because they did not notify police for three days.
Acting Justice Max Gors said the circuit judge could not label C.C.H. as a child in need of supervision because that was not requested by the prosecutor. Under the Constitution, people cannot be legally convicted for things not formally accused, Gors said.
"C.C.H. could not defend against what he was not charged with, tried for, or alleged to be," Gors wrote.
"A (judge) does not have authority to fit a child's conduct into an uncharged category and then adjudicate and punish the child," Gors said.
The Constitution requires that defendants be notified of laws they are accused of breaking and be allowed adequate opportunities to defend themselves, he added.
"Such guarantees are fundamental," Gors said.