One of the central differences between delinquency matters and criminal matters is that juvenile records are not subject to public inspection. This includes juvenile court records (G.S. 7B-3000(b)); all law enforcement records and files concerning juveniles, unless jurisdiction has been transferred to superior court (G.S. 7B-3001(b)); and all records and files maintained by the Division of Juvenile Justice (G.S. 7B-3001(c)). Part II of Session Law 2023-114 adds a new G.S. 7B-3103 to the Juvenile Code to establish a limited exception to the confidentiality of juvenile records. It allows the release of juvenile information to the public under certain circumstances. This new law applies to offenses committed on or after December 1, 2023.
When Can Information be Released?
1. Pursuant to a Court Order
Under the new law, the court may order the Division of Juvenile Justice or any law enforcement agency in North Carolina to release certain juvenile information to the public when the court makes the following three required findings.
- That a petition has been filed alleging that the juvenile has committed an offense “that would subject the juvenile to transfer to superior court” for trial as an adult according to S. 7B-2200 or G.S. 7B-2200.5. Both of these statutes direct when a juvenile case must be transferred to superior court (mandatory transfer) and when other cases may be transferred to superior court (discretionary transfer). The matters subject to mandatory transfer include Class A felonies alleged to have been committed at ages 13, 14, or 15 and Class A – G felonies alleged to have been committed at ages 16 or 17. However, the prosecutor has the authority under G.S. 7B-2200.5(a1) to decline to transfer a case in which a Class D – G felony is alleged to have been committed at age 16 or 17. The use of the word “would” in the new statute suggests that the court must find that the juvenile is alleged to have committed an offense that subjects them to a mandatory transfer. Cases subject to discretionary transfer could be transferred, but one cannot know that the juvenile would be subject to transfer at the time the petition is filed. It is also not clear if Class D – G felonies alleged to have been committed at age 16 or 17 count as allegations that “would subject the juvenile to transfer to superior court,” since one does not know whether the prosecutor will decline to transfer those cases at the time that the petition is filed. The statute does clearly allow for the court to order disclosure when the allegations in the petition include a Class A felony alleged to have been committed at age 13, 14, or 15 or a Class A – C felony alleged to have been committed at age 16 or 17. These cases must be transferred once probable cause is found or an indictment is returned.
- That the juvenile presents a danger to self or others. This determination must be based on the juvenile’s record or the nature of the allegations in the petition.
- That good cause exists for the disclosure. The statute does not provide guidance as to what constitutes good cause.
2. Under Exigent Circumstances
The new G.S. 7B-3103(e) allows the Division of Juvenile Justice or any law enforcement agency within North Carolina to release certain juvenile information when exigent circumstances exist. The statute does not define what might constitute an exigent circumstance for this purpose.
If information is released under this authority, the agency that released the information must seek a court order, pursuant to the requirements for issuing a court order described above, as soon as reasonably practicable and no later than the first available session of court in the county after the release of information. The statute does not require that the first available session be a juvenile session. Therefore, the releasing agency must seek a court order at the next available session of district court, whether that is a juvenile session or not.
What Information Can be Released?
When a court order is issued authorizing the release of information or when information is released pursuant to exigent circumstances, the following information about the juvenile may be released:
- first and last name and photograph;
- any offense alleged to have been committed by the juvenile in the petition;
- whether a secure custody order has been issued; and
- a statement as to the level of concern of the Division of Juvenile Justice or law enforcement agency regarding the threat to self or others posed by the juvenile. This statement can be based on the juvenile’s record or the nature of the allegations against the juvenile.
The Division of Juvenile Justice or law enforcement agency must make a reasonable effort to notify a parent, legal guardian, or custodian of the juvenile before that entity releases information about the juvenile to the public.
In addition, if the court issues an order authorizing the release of information and the juvenile is taken into custody before information is released to the public, then release of the information is prohibited.
When Information Must be Removed from Public Display
There are two circumstances when released information about the juvenile must be removed from any publicly available website or social media account controlled by the releasing law enforcement agency or the Division of Juvenile Justice. They are:
- when the juvenile is taken into custody after information was released pursuant to a court order or under exigent circumstances, and
- when information was released under exigent circumstances and the court does not issue a court order authorizing the release of that information at the next available session of court.
What’s the Point?
This section of S.L. 2023-114 is named “Lyric and Devin’s Law.” Lyric Woods (age 14) and Devin Clark (age 18) were murdered in 2022 and a 17-year-old was charged with their murder. As explained in this article from The News and Observer, the alleged perpetrator fled from North Carolina. Because the case began under juvenile jurisdiction, information about the case could not be publicly released to assist law enforcement with taking him into custody. This new law is structured to allow for the release of information about the alleged perpetrator in a case like this until the juvenile is taken into custody. It is a tool that can be used to facilitate the apprehension of juveniles who are alleged to have committed the most serious offenses and are considered a threat to the safety of themselves or others.
There may be concern that once information is released publicly, it is forever in the public domain regardless of whether that information is removed from any website or social media platform. However, by limiting the release of information to cases that would be transferred to superior court under the mandatory transfer law, the ability to release information is limited to cases that will ultimately become criminal cases. Once those cases are transferred and become criminal matters, identifying information about the alleged perpetrator becomes public information (even when that person is under age 18). Ensuring that the release of information is limited to cases in which transfer will occur therefore limits the release of information to cases that will ultimately become public information.
That’s a Wrap
This is my last blog on S.L. 2023-114…until we get much closer to implementing Part V, which will bring big changes to the law related to juvenile capacity to proceed. Those changes will not take effect until January 1, 2025. I anticipate developing resources and teaching courses on the new law throughout 2024.
This is also my last blog of 2023. Please feel free to reach out to me with any comments or questions. You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season. No matter what your role in the juvenile justice system is, you do important work for the youth and communities in North Carolina. I sincerely appreciate all that you do. Happy holidays.