When he was ten years old and clowning around, Shea Sweeney did something incredibly stupid with a cardboard box and a pack of matches. It left his neighbors feeling burned, and little Shea saddled with a debt his allowance couldn't begin to cover, even if he lived to be as old as Bob Hope.
Now 25, Sweeney still remembers that day -- and rues it. But he's no longer struggling under a mountain of debt, thanks to a recent decision by a panel of federal judges. Despite strong objections from the Colorado Attorney General's Office, the panel ruled that Sweeney's obligation to pay restitution as a result of a juvenile conviction can be discharged in a bankruptcy filing. The decision highlights fundamental differences between adult and juvenile court proceedings and could have wide-ranging implications for the state's efforts to collect fines and restitution from other former delinquents.
"It sounds like this could have a broad impact," says Kristin Hubbell, spokeswoman for the AG's office. "Of course, our feeling is that people who commit crimes and are ordered to pay restitution should pay."
Court-ordered restitution for adult felons can't be wiped out by a bankruptcy. But the U.S. Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Tenth Circuit held that juvenile-delinquency convictions such as Sweeney's are different. In his case, the crime dates back to an idle Sunday afternoon in 1991, when Sweeney and another grade-schooler were trying to scrounge up some excitement in a townhome development on the southeast edge of the metro area, in what is now the town of Centennial.
"My buddy and I went down the creek, and we were playing with matches," Sweeney recalls. "We got bored with that and wandered into the development and went into a couple of garages. I lit this box. I thought it was out and went home. Then we heard all these fire trucks. The box had set this whole carport on fire."
The blaze trashed several cars and caused damage to other structures, as well. The total amount stretched into six figures. In a plea agreement in juvenile court, Sweeney pleaded guilty to second-degree arson and was placed on probation. The judge divided the restitution costs between the two firebugs; Sweeney's share was close to ninety grand.
Sweeney figured he'd be paying for his carelessness most of his life. "Knowing what I had done, feeling kind of guilty and anguished about that, it seemed just to me," he says now. "I wasn't in a position to argue with it. I thought the money would go to the state and eventually get to each of the parties."
As a teenager, Sweeney started out paying out ten dollars a month. Then thirty. Then a hundred. He worked part-time jobs while going to school, and the payments were often erratic. In 2002 he bought a house, using proceeds from an insurance settlement after his father's death. But he wasn't always able to find roommates to keep current with the mortgage. "It got to the point where I needed to declare bankruptcy," he says.
In the course of examining his client's finances, Sweeney's bankruptcy attorney, Ray Solot, began to question the viability of the original restitution order. He also found case law indicating that such a debt could be discharged through bankruptcy. "The whole purpose of the juvenile code is that being adjudicated a delinquent is not the same as a conviction for a crime," Solot explains. "That's so the juvenile can get a fresh start when he reaches his majority. I thought this was a no-brainer."
The attorney general's office didn't agree. Sweeney's bankruptcy case soon became crowded with state attorneys, filing objections and requesting hearings to argue against discharge of his childhood debt. "I was absolutely shocked," Solot says. "They were very boorish and condescending. They treated Shea like he was some kind of monster. They don't know him, and they certainly didn't know him when he was ten years old."
Solot says he and his client were "pushed from pillar to post" by the AG's deputies, who insisted that people who lost property in the fire were entitled to restitution. But Sweeney had gone to check out his sealed juvenile file and discovered that most of the owners of the damaged vehicles had received insurance settlements long ago and left the complex. According to the records, Sweeney has paid $3,900 of his restitution to date, and the major creditor listed is Farmers Insurance.
"They kept talking about the victims of this horrendous crime," Solot says. "The insurance company was the only victim left. All these years, Arapahoe County has been collecting on behalf of Farmers Insurance."
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Bankruptcy judge Michael Romero decided that Sweeney had been convicted of a crime, and therefore his restitution couldn't be discharged through bankruptcy. But two weeks ago, the appeal panel reversed that decision. The panel ruled that Sweeney had been found to be a juvenile delinquent in civil proceedings; despite the admission of arson, he hadn't been convicted of a crime, because a juvenile case is not a criminal proceeding under state law. Consequently, his restitution debt could be discharged.
Hubbell says it's too soon to tell if the AG's office will appeal the decision. Solot believes the office is trying to subvert the primary purpose of having a separate court system for juveniles. "You can see the steady erosion of the juvenile code," he says. "Thirty years ago, it meant something."
Sweeney now works as an English-Spanish interpreter and plays bass in a local band called the Visitors. He expects to pay a small percentage of his restitution over the next five years as part of his Chapter 13 plan and then be done with it for good. He knows some people won't agree with that, but he's looking forward to having a second chance at financial independence.
"I don't want to shirk responsibility," he says. "At the same time, this kind of debt is dischargeable. I did my community service and completed my probation. I paid what I could. I just got to a point in my life where I was so far in the red, I needed some help."