Court vacates delinquency ruling in indecent assault case

A Pennsylvania appeals court has vacated a decision in which a Clearfield County judge found a teenager to be delinquent after he entered a plea to indecent assault of a 3-year-old child, an offense that occurred in 2012.

The alleged perpetrator was 14 years old at the time.

Since then, the youth’s case has been heard twice by the juvenile court in Jefferson County, where the offense occurred, and twice in Clearfield County, where he lived.

When an offense is indicated in one county, but the perpetrator lives in another county, the case is sent to the juvenile’s home county for adjudication and sentencing.

After a Jefferson County judge ruled that a delinquent act occurred, the Clearfield County court, during a contested hearing, adjudicated him delinquent of aggravated indecent assault for improper touching of the child. The teenager was placed on probation for a year.

During that year, the boy violated his probation by “sexting” other students in school.

He was sent to Appalachian Youth Service in Ebensburg, where he received sex offender treatment.

After his release from AYS, he received further counseling through Project Point of Light in DuBois.

Meanwhile, his attorneys appealed his initial conviction, contending a recording of the child was improperly used in his trial, and the Superior Court vacated the conviction.

The juvenile eventually graduated from high school and attended college, but his case once again began a lengthy trip through the justice system.

During the second hearing in Jefferson County, he admitted to indecent assault and the case was resent to Clearfield County where Judge Fredric J. Ammerman declared him delinquent and in need of further treatment.

The young man’s attorneys, Christopher Eldon Mohney and Patrick Lavelle of DuBois, once again appealed the finding of delinquency, and in a decision last week, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court vacated the finding of delinquency because the prosecution presented no evidence to show the defendant needed “treatment, supervision or rehabilitation,” a finding that is necessary under Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Act for the declaration of delinquency.

A 22-page opinion written by Superior Court Judge Gene Strassburger stated, “It is the commonwealth’s burden to provide evidence proving that (the teen) needed treatment, supervision or rehabilitation at the time of the adjudicatory hearing, and the commonwealth failed to do so.”

The Clearfield County judge hearing the case reasoned the lack of evidence “suggested” the boy’s treatment at AYS and Project Point of Light as ineffective because of his plea the second time around to the charge of indecent assault.

The three-judge panel concluded: “That may be the case. But it is also entirely possible that (the teen’s) former treatment is what caused (him) to accept responsibility for his actions at age 18 during the current proceedings.”

The opinion concluded that it was the prosecution’s burden to provide evidence that the young man still needed treatment.

It found the juvenile court abused its discretion by basing its finding “upon its own opinion or speculation.”

The county judge, the opinion stated, had many “tools” at his disposal.

He could have ordered a social study and report addressing the youth’s present family and environment, a psychosexual evaluation or an examination by a physician or psychologist, the opinion stated.

“Having elected not to use those tools, the juvenile court was limited to basing its decision upon the evidence presented at the adjudicatory hearing,” it continued.

The Superior Court panel ruled the judge abused his discretion because his decision concluding the teen was in need of further treatment “is not supported by the record.”

Ammerman’s order placing the youth on another year of probation and finding him a delinquent was reversed.