Law Presuming Juvenile’s Statement in Police Custody Was Voluntary Ruled Unconstitutional
In the context of interrogating juveniles in police custody, a state law that presumes the suspect’s statements are voluntary if electronically recorded is unconstitutional, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.
In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court found R.C. 2933.81(B) violates the due process rights of juveniles. Writing for the Court, Justice Judith L. French directed a Hamilton County Common Pleas Court to reconsider then 15-year-old Tyshawn Barker’s confession to murder, robbery and tampering with evidence charges that led to a 25 years to life in prison sentence.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Terrence O’Donnell maintained that Barker did not follow the proper procedure to challenge the law in the Supreme Court, and the trial court properly considered Barker’s Miranda rights before concluding his statement to police could be used in the case.
Barker Confesses Role in Crime
In October 2011, Barker, Dequantez Nixson, Brendan Washington, and Carrielle Conn went to an apartment building to shoot Samuel Jefffries who had recently filed domestic violence charges against Nixson’s mother. Jeffries’ friend Ruddell Englemon answered the door, and Conn shot him. The group fled and Englemon later died from the injuries. Two days later, concerned that Conn would go to police, Barker, Nixson and Washington lured Conn to an isolated wooded area where they shot her several times, killing her, and stole her cell phone.
Barker was taken into custody, and shortly before midnight, Cincinnati Police Department Detectives Kurt Ballman and Terry McGuffey questioned Barker about the shootings. The detectives electronically recorded the interrogation and read Barker his Miranda rights. They asked that he sign if he understood he had the right to remain silent, that anything he said could be used as evidence against him, and that he had the right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed if he could not afford one. In response to questions, Barker said it was the first time he was read Miranda rights and did understand them from seeing them recited to others on television.
Barker implicated himself in the shootings, and he was briefly questioned again by detectives a few days later after he had spoken to an attorney stating, “I seen an attorney – an attorney, whatever that is.” He was reread his Miranda rights and asked to identify Washington, one of the other suspects, from a photograph.
Juvenile Court Evaluation
Barker was charged as a juvenile with aggravated murder, and a juvenile court ordered an evaluation to determine if he should be tried as a juvenile or adult. Dr. Paul Deardorff evaluated Barker and reported evidence that Barker was “mildly mentally retarded,” but was “of borderline intelligence.” He assessed Barker’s academic abilities as ranging between third- and fifth-grade levels and that he might have a learning disability. The juvenile court relinquished jurisdiction and bound Barker over to common pleas court to be tried as an adult.
In trial court, Barker motioned to suppress his statements made in police custody, arguing he did not “knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily” waive his Miranda rights, and that his statements were not voluntary. Detective Ballman testified he had no reason to believe Barker did not understand his rights, and prosecutors maintained that because the interrogation was electronically recorded, R.C. 2933.81(B) placed the burden on Barker to demonstrate the statements were involuntary.
Barker’s trial attorney did not question the validity of the law, and the trial court denied the motion to suppress the evidence. Barker then pleaded no contest to four counts of aggravated murder, two counts of aggravated robbery, and three counts of tampering with evidence, all with firearm specifications. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Barker appealed to the First District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the sentence citing R.C. 2933.81(B), noting that nothing in the trial court record refuted the presumption that Barker made the statements voluntarily.
Barker appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to determine if R.C. 2933.81(B) violates a juvenile’s constitutional rights and what affect the law might have had on determining if Barker waived his Miranda rights.
Determining Miranda Rights with Juveniles
Justice French explained the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1966 Miranda v. Arizona decision was adopted to ensure a suspect’s right against self-incrimination, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, was protected when in police custody. She wrote the Supreme Court recognized the importance of suspects having a “real understanding” of their rights, and when an interrogation continues after suspects agree to speak without an attorney present, the government bears “a heavy burden” to demonstrate the suspects knowingly and intelligently waived their rights. If the state cannot meet the burden then no evidence obtained from the interrogation can be used.
Justice French wrote courts look at the “totality of circumstances” to determine if a suspect knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily waived Miranda rights, and citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1979 Fare v. Michael decision found that when the suspect is a juvenile the totality of circumstances includes the suspect’s age, experience, education, background, and intelligence as well as his capacity to understand the warnings given to him, and the consequences of waiving his rights.
“That analysis here would necessarily include consideration of factors such as Barker’s age, the late-night time of the interrogation, the absence of a parent or guardian, Barker’s ‘borderline intelligence’ and third grade reading level, Barker’s statement that he was not familiar with Miranda rights other than having heard them from television, and Barker’s apparent confusion about what an attorney was,” she wrote.
Court Misapplied State Law
The state argued that not only did Barker waive his rights to be silent or have an attorney, his statements were voluntary and because they were recorded, the trial court was correct to presume they were voluntary unless Barker provides some evidence that they were not.
Justice French wrote the trial court did not “expressly find that Barker knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily” waived his Miranda rights, and the First District indicated it “found support” that Barker properly waived his Miranda rights “despite the absence of an express finding by the trial court to that effect.”
Justice French ruled the First District misapplied the law. She noted the statute indicates “all statements made by a person who is the suspect of a violation” are presumed voluntary if recorded. She wrote that a decision to waive the right to remain silent is not a “statement” and the state cannot use the law to prove that Barker’s waiver of his rights was voluntary.
She also explained the state law cannot change the constitutional rule that the prosecutor must prove Barker knowingly, intelligently and voluntary waived his rights and that Barker’s statements were voluntary. She stated “there is no rational relationship between the existence of an electronic recording and the voluntariness of a suspect’s statement.”
“In the end, the burden of establishing the voluntariness of a juvenile’s custodial statement falls on the state,” she wrote. “The General Assembly may not remove the burden via a presumption based on the existence of an electronic recording without running afoul of the due-process protections owed a child.”
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Judith Ann Lanzinger and William M. O’Neill joined the opinion.
Dissent Maintains Presumption Was Not Applied
In his dissent, Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote that Barker failed to challenge the constitutionality of the presumption statute at the trial court and appellate court level, and cannot raise it for the first time in the Supreme Court.
Justice O’Donnell also stated that Barker concedes that when the trial court denied his motion to suppress his statement, it did not apply the presumption in R.C. 2933.81(B).
“In my view, there is no reasonable possibility that Barker’s statements to police would have been suppressed, and reversal here is not necessary to correct a manifest miscarriage of justice,” he wrote.
He observed that the First District recognized the presumption that an electronically recorded statement is voluntary, but there is no indication the court relied on it in reaching its decision. Instead, the First District explained its duty to defer to the trial court and conducted an independent review of the interrogation records before upholding the finding that Barker knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights. Because nothing indicated the presumption of the voluntariness affected the determination that Barker’s statement to police would have been suppressed, and because Barker failed to raise the constitutional issue in the lower courts, Justice O’Donnell would dismiss the appeal as improvidently allowed by the Court.
Justice Sharon L. Kennedy joined the dissent.
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