Legal Hotline: Juvenile Access

  • Feb 28, 2018

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

Q:  When can a reporter or a member of the public access hearings and law enforcement and court records related to juveniles charged with a crime? If we get access to the name, can we publish it?

A: The law regarding juvenile records and public access is found at 42 Pa.C.S. §6307and §6308. Although there is a strong presumption of access to court records and proceedings, the Juvenile Act provides that law enforcement records and court files for juveniles are not open to public inspection or disclosure to the public, except where:

A.     The child is 14 or over AND 

i.      The child has been adjudicated delinquent by a court of an act that would be considered a felony if committed by an adult; OR

ii.      The child has been previously been adjudicated delinquent of an act that would be considered a felony if committed by an adult AND a delinquency petition has been filed alleging acts that would be considered a felony if committed by an adult; 

B.     The child is age 12 or 13 AND –

i.      The child has been adjudicated delinquent by a court of conduct that would constitute:

1.       Murder
2.       Voluntary manslaughter
3.      Aggravated Assault
4.      Arson
5.      Involuntary deviate sexual intercourse
6.      Kidnapping
7.      Rape
8.      Robbery
9.      Robbery of a motor vehicle
10.  Attempt or conspiracy to commit any of the above; OR

ii.      The child has been previously adjudicated of one of the above crimes, AND a delinquency petition has been filed alleging acts constituting one of the above crimes.

In these cases, the following information shall be made public as part of law enforcement and court records:  

1.      Name and age of the juvenile,
2.      Address of the juvenile,
3.      Offenses charged, AND
4.      Disposition of the case.

The law governing public access to juvenile hearings is found at 42 Pa.C.S. §6336.  Hearings under the Juvenile Act are public when the child charged is 14 or older and charged with any felony, or if the child is 12 or 13 AND charged with:

  1. Murder
  2. Voluntary manslaughter
  3.  Aggravated assault
  4. Arson (v) Involuntary deviate sexual intercourse
  5. Kidnapping
  6. Rape
  7. Robbery
  8. Robbery of motor vehicle
  9. Attempt or conspiracy to commit any of the offenses in this paragraph

The Act provides that the hearing can be closed in these situations upon agreement between the child and the attorney for the Commonwealth. 

Journalists should note that the Constitutional presumption of access applies juvenile dependency proceedings, and as such, dependency hearings are public unless good cause for closure is shown on the record. See In re M.B., 819 A.2d 59 (Pa. Super. 1996). Dependency proceedings are distinguishable from delinquency proceedings under the Juvenile Act, but the cases often overlap.

When media organizations obtain the identity of children accused or found delinquent of crimes under the Juvenile Act, they are faced with the ethical dilemma of whether to publish the child’s name as part of news coverage. The law does not prohibit publishing the name of the accused child obtained from official records, but the decision is never easy. The Pennsylvania Society of News Editors has created ethical guidelines to assist newsrooms with this, and other, decisions. The Society for Professional Journalists’ Ethics Code may also be helpful for newsrooms facing this issue. 

As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.  Please contact your organization’s corporate counsel or the PNA Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions.

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