Trying a Kid as an Adult: MN Supreme Court Evaluates Judge’s Adult Certification Ruling

Before a juvenile can be tried as an adult in Minnesota, the prosecution needs to file a motion for certification for adult prosecution. Then, unless stipulated to in the rare circumstance, a certification hearing will take place. There, the prosecution and defense can present witnesses in arguing why, or why not, a child should be tried as an adult.

Recently, the Minnesota Supreme Court evaluated a district court judge’s decision about whether a juvenile should be certified as an adult in In the Matter of the Welfare of H.B. In that matter, the district court judge determined that the prosecution did not meet its burden by clear and convincing evidence that keeping H.B. in juvenile court would not serve public safety. Sometimes, the burden is on the prosecution to prove why certification should happen. Other times, the defense has the burden to rebut a presumption of certification by demonstrating by clear and convincing evidence that keeping the matter in juvenile court serves public safety.

There is a presumption for certification to adult court if the child was sixteen or seventeen years old at the time of the offense, the offense would be a presumptive commit to prison under the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines, and the court finds probable cause for the offense. If those factors are met, the defense has the burden of proving why it should stay in criminal court. In H.B., the juvenile was only fifteen years old at the time of the incident; thus, the prosecution had the burden to show why the matter should go to adult court.

Certification hearings are basically mini trials. Witnesses can testify, evidence can be submitted, cross examination occurs, arguments made, etc. In H.B., the certification hearing lasted for nine days. The prosecution charged H.B. with aiding and abetting second degree murder and first-degree aggravated robbery. In post-Miranda statements, H.B. and the other person charged from the incident, admitted to the offenses. The juvenile’s defense lawyer knew the case would be difficult to try, so one of the best things, if not the best thing, the attorney could do would be to keep it out of adult court and possible adult punishment. Fighting certification is a huge deal.

At the conclusion of a certification hearing, the district court judge must determine whether public safety is served by certifying the matter to adult court. To do that, the judge shall consider six factors: (1) the seriousness of the alleged offense; (2) the culpability of the juvenile in committing the alleged offense; (3) the child’s prior record; (4) the juvenile’s programming history; (5) the adequacy of the punishment and programming available in the juvenile system; and (6) the dispositional options available for the child. In H.B., the district court judge said that only two factors favored adult certification: seriousness of the offense and prior history. The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the district court and stated that three additional factors favored certification: culpability, programming history, and adequacy of punishment or programming available in the juvenile system. The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeals on all the factors except for the adequacy of the punishment and programming in juvenile court, but the court determined that the court of appeals came to the proper result of determining the prosecution met its burden of certification.

Trying a kid as an adult is a serious matter. The prosecution is basically saying that the juvenile system is not adequate for the situation, and it warrants more severe punishment. A harsh concept to grasp when we are discussing the lives of those under the age of eighteen. Until juvenile prosecutors take a lighter stance on adult certification, defense lawyers will continue to fight against it. For a consultation, feel free to call or text Ambrose Law Firm at 612-547-3199 or email:

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense lawyer and DWI lawyer in Minnesota. Minnesota. Super Lawyers named him Super Lawyer this year and a Rising Star the previous six years before that. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. DWI Attorney Minnesota; Criminal Defense Lawyer St. Paul MN; and Juvenile Lawyer Minnesota.