EL PASO, TEXAS (KTSM) – The State Supreme Court in New Mexico ruled that juveniles can challenge a judge’s decision to sentence them as adults for certain felonies even if a plea agreement waives their appeal rights.

Under New Mexico law, juveniles found guilty of certain felonies are considered “youthful offenders” if they are between 14 and 18 years old at the time of the offense.

Courts must conduct an amenability hearing to determine whether they may be responsive to treatment and rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system or should be sentenced as an adult.  

An amenability determination establishes a court’s authority to impose an adult sentence on a youth offender.

Christopher Rodriguez, a youth offender, pleaded guilty to several felonies committed when he was 16 years old. After a hearing, the judge determined, Rodriguez was not amenable to treatment as a juvenile and sentenced him as an adult to 31½ years in prison with 17½ years suspended.

Rodriguez, then challenged the judge’s finding, but the state court of appeals determined that he had waived the right to appeal under terms of his plea agreement.

The supreme court disagreed, reversing the court of appeals. The justices ordered the case back to the court of appeals for consideration of the issues raised by Rodriguez’s appeal.

The court concluded, that without a finding of non-amenability, the court lacks the authority to sentence a juvenile defendant as an adult. Furthermore, a challenge to an amenability determination presents a jurisdictional argument that may be raised on appeal notwithstanding the entry of a valid guilty plea and appellate waiver.

For more on the decision in State v. Rodriguez, No. S-1-SC-38130, visit the New Mexico Compilation Commission’s website using the following link: