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In re Jose C.

January 22, 2009


Ct.App. 4/1 D049525 Imperial County Super. Ct. No. JJL23536. Judge: William D. Lehman.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Werdegar,j.

Welfare and Institutions Code section 602 purports to give our state courts jurisdiction to declare any juvenile who "violates any law . . . of the United States" a ward of the court. (Id., subd. (a).) However, Congress has granted federal courts "original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of all offenses against the laws of the United States." (18 U.S.C. § 3231.) We consider whether, under the United States Constitution's supremacy clause, section 3231 or any other provision of federal law preempts Welfare and Institutions Code section 602.

We conclude Welfare and Institutions Code section 602 is not preempted. While Congress has barred state courts from entertaining direct criminal prosecutions of federal violations, close analysis of the federal statutes allocating jurisdiction demonstrates Congress did not intend to preclude state courts from adjudicating whether federal law has been violated in the context of state delinquency proceedings. Such proceedings exist, separate and apart from the adult criminal justice system, out of a recognition that minors who commit criminal offenses pose a special problem and require treatment and rehabilitation different from the confinement and punishment meted out in adult criminal trials. Whether delinquency proceedings are treated as civil or criminal, the determinations they entail - whether a minor should be declared a ward of the court and what juvenile treatment and rehabilitation he or she should be afforded - do not trench on exclusive federal court prerogatives to try, convict, and punish for the violation of federal law. To the contrary, Congress, recognizing no comparable federal system exists, has made clear its preference that offenses by minors be handled, whenever possible, by state juvenile courts. As an independent sovereign, California generally may exercise its police power to regulate such juvenile misconduct, even when that misconduct is simultaneously the subject of federal prohibitions.

Nor is the present proceeding, which involves the alleged violation of federal immigration law, preempted by exclusive federal authority over matters pertaining to immigration. While it is well settled that only the federal government may regulate the border and establish rules governing who may enter and who may stay, equally clear is that Congress has in its immigration enactments embraced a model of collaborative federalism under which states and localities may assist in the enforcement of federal immigration policy. Welfare and Institutions Code section 602, insofar as it authorizes state courts to address juvenile violations of the immigration laws, does just that.

We will affirm the Court of Appeal.


On August 16, 2006, United States Border Patrol agents tracked footprints leading across the Mexican border into the California desert near Calexico. A border patrol agent in a helicopter saw several persons hiding in bushes. One of these persons, later identified as Jose C., motioned to the other individuals to follow him. When agents approached the group on foot, he broke off and hid an item under a bush. After detaining Jose C. and six other persons, an agent recovered a cell phone hidden under the bush. The federal agents arrested Jose C., a minor, and transferred him to state custody.

The Imperial County District Attorney thereafter filed a juvenile wardship petition under Welfare and Institutions Code section 602, alleging a single count of illegally bringing six aliens into the United States without presentation at the border, in violation of title 8 United States Code section 1324(a)(2)(B)(iii). At the outset of the jurisdictional hearing, Jose C.'s counsel objected that the juvenile court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate federal criminal violations. The juvenile court overruled the objection, relying on the portion of Welfare and Institutions Code section 602 that purports to give state courts authority to base wardships on violations of federal law.

At trial, two of the persons who had been detained with Jose C. testified they had made arrangements with undisclosed parties for assistance in crossing into the United States and had agreed to pay $1,800 once safely inside the country. They further testified that Jose C. had acted as their guide during the crossing. Jose C. told them when to move, swept their footprints to remove their tracks, and repeatedly spoke on a cell phone, apparently in an attempt to determine when immigration agents were in the vicinity. Based on this evidence, the court found the allegations in the petition true beyond a reasonable doubt and declared Jose C. a ward of the court. At the dispositional hearing, the court declared the offense a felony, set the maximum term of confinement at 10 years, gave Jose C. credit for 58 days served in juvenile hall, and placed him on formal probation.

The Court of Appeal affirmed. It rejected Jose C.'s argument that the juvenile court lacked jurisdiction, reasoning that whether or not title 18 United States Code section 3231 deprived state courts of jurisdiction was irrelevant because title 18 United States Code section 5032 (a statute governing delinquency proceedings in federal court) displaced section 3231 with regard to juvenile matters, a presumption of concurrent jurisdiction applied, and section 5032 made no mention of depriving state courts of jurisdiction.

We granted review to resolve a significant federalism question: whether under Welfare and Institutions Code section 602 a state court has jurisdiction to declare a juvenile a ward of the court based on violations of federal law.


I. Jurisdictional Preemption

A. Title 18 United States Code Section 3231

Welfare and Institutions Code section 602, subdivision (a) provides in relevant part: "[A]ny person who is under the age of 18 years when he or she violates any law of this state or of the United States or any ordinance of any city or county of this state defining crime . . . is within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, which may adjudge such person to be a ward of the court." (Italics added.) Thus, as a matter of state law, the Legislature has granted juvenile courts the authority to declare juveniles wards of the court on the basis of acts that violate state or federal criminal law.

Jose C. contends this jurisdictional grant is necessary but not sufficient; that under the supremacy clause (U.S. Const., art. VI, cl. 2), state court jurisdiction depends as well on whether Congress has withdrawn from state courts the power to exercise jurisdiction. As a constitutional matter, it has long been settled that Congress has the power to constrict state court jurisdiction, at least with respect to federal matters. (Howlett v. Rose (1990) 496 U.S. 356, 368, fn. 15; Claflin v. Houseman, Assignee (1876) 93 U.S. 130, 137; The Moses Taylor (1866) 71 U.S. 411, 429-430; Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816) 14 U.S. 304, 337.) Relying on title 18 United States Code section 3231 (hereafter section 3231), Jose C. argues that Congress has done so here and thereby expressly preempted the instant proceeding.

The first sentence of section 3231 provides: "The district courts of the United States shall have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of all offenses against the laws of the United States." This portion of the statute establishes two general principles: first, federal district courts may exercise jurisdiction over federal criminal offenses, and second, state courts may not do so. At a minimum, therefore, section 3231 displaces state court jurisdiction over the direct prosecution, conviction, and imposition of federal criminal punishment for violations of federal criminal statutes. Jose C. contends section 3231 goes further and precludes state courts from interpreting and adjudicating in any proceeding whether a federal criminal statute has been violated.

In contesting whether the language of the statute bars adjudication of federal criminal conduct in the context of a state wardship petition, the People and Jose C. debate at length whether a state wardship petition gives rise to a "civil" or "criminal" proceeding. Wardship proceedings have at different times, and for different purposes, been characterized as de facto criminal (e.g., In re Gault (1967) 387 U.S. 1, 27-31, 36-37; In re Kevin S. (2003) 113 Cal.App.4th 97, 108-109; In re Gregory K. (1980) 106 Cal.App.3d 164, 168 & fn. 2) and as genuinely civil (e.g., In re Derrick B. (2006) 39 Cal.4th 535, 540; People v. Sanchez (1985) 170 Cal.App.3d 216, 218; Welf. & Inst. Code, § 203). In truth, they are hybrid proceedings, and the question whether a wardship proceeding is de facto criminal or civil has no single answer; rather, it depends on the purpose for which the question is asked. Here, faced with a preemption question, we conclude the precise characterization is immaterial because, whether characterized as civil or criminal, wardship proceedings that determine whether a federal criminal statute has been violated are not preempted by section 3231.

B. Welfare and Institutions Code Section 602 as a Civil Proceeding

Taking first the view that wardship proceedings are properly characterized as civil, we follow the United States Supreme Court's lead in Tafflin v. Levitt (1990) 493 U.S. 455 and find no preemption. In Tafflin, the Supreme Court considered whether state courts have concurrent jurisdiction over civil violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) (18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-1968). Civil RICO is an unusual statute, in that a civil RICO claim may depend upon proof that one of an enumerated list of federal criminal laws has been violated. (Id., §§ 1961(1), 1962, 1964(c); Cianci v. Superior Court (1985) 40 Cal.3d 903, 909.) Thus, to adjudicate whether a civil RICO claim has been established, a court or jury may need to determine whether a federal criminal violation has occurred. The Tafflin plaintiffs, arguing for exclusive federal court jurisdiction over such claims, contended permitting a state court to make this predicate determination would violate section 3231's grant of exclusive federal criminal jurisdiction and thus be incompatible with federal interests.

The United States Supreme Court found no incompatibility. "[C]oncurrent jurisdiction over [18 U.S.C.] § 1964(c) suits," it explained, "is clearly not incompatible with § 3231 itself, for civil RICO claims are not 'offenses against the laws of the United States,' § 3231, and do not result in the imposition of criminal sanctions - uniform or otherwise." (Tafflin v. Levitt, supra, 493 U.S. at p. 464.) It went on to conclude that state courts interpreting and applying federal criminal law posed no threat to federal interests, as state courts would be bound by federal precedent and their interpretations would be subject to direct review in the United States Supreme Court. (Id. at pp. 465-466; see also id. at p. 468 (conc. opn. of White, J.) [opining that federal misapplication of state law under RICO posed greater risk than the reverse].) The Tafflin court asserted its "full faith in ...

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