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Court News Ohio

Supreme Court Holds That Statute Does Not Entitle Juvenile Offender to Legal Counsel During Interrogation Prior to Filing of Charges

The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that a provision of state law that entitles juvenile offenders to representation by legal counsel “at all stages of the proceedings” in delinquency cases refers only to court proceedings that take place after the filing of a complaint in juvenile court or upon an offender’s  initial appearance in juvenile court.

Based on that analysis, the court affirmed an  Eighth District Court of Appeals decision holding that R.C. 2151.352 does not confer a statutory right to legal counsel on a juvenile offender during a police interrogation that is conducted prior to the filing of a complaint or the offender’s initial appearance in juvenile court.

The court’s 4-3 majority decision was authored by Justice Terrence O’Donnell.

The case involved a juvenile offender identified by the initials M.W. who was stopped by a Cleveland police officer while driving without a valid license.  M.W. initially identified himself to the officer by another name.  When the officer discovered the deception and asked why he had used a false identity, M.W. stated that he thought he had been stopped because of “something to do with” another juvenile identified as A.C. 

The officer knew that A.C. had been arrested the previous day for aggravated robbery, and asked M.W. what he knew about the robbery.  M.W. confessed that he had served as a lookout for A.C. during the robbery.  M.W. was arrested and transported to a district police station, where he was advised of his constitutional rights, signed a written waiver of those rights, and signed a statement admitting his role in the robbery.  Police then filed a complaint in the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court charging M.W. with aggravated robbery with a firearm specification.

He was found guilty and sentenced to a minimum of one year in the custody of the Ohio Youth Commission for the aggravated robbery count and another year to be served consecutively for the firearm specification. 

M.W. appealed, asserting among other contentions that the trial court should not have admitted  his written statement into evidence because the police had violated R.C. 2151.352 by failing to provide him with an attorney before obtaining his statement. Citing language in the statute that requires a juvenile offender to have the assistance of legal counsel “at all stages of proceedings” in a delinquency case, M.W. argued  that a custodial interrogation during which he was asked to give a written statement was a “proceeding.” He also asserted that under a 2007 Ohio Supreme Court decision, In re C.S., a juvenile cannot validly waive his Fifth Amendment right to counsel during a juvenile proceeding unless he has first consulted with a parent, guardian, custodian or attorney regarding the waiver. Because he had not consulted with anyone prior to waiving his constitutional rights, M.W. argued that his waiver was invalid, and therefore the statement he gave police during questioning without counsel was inadmissible against him.

The Eighth District Court of Appeals rejected M.W.’s claim that his interrogation was a “stage of the proceedings” in his case, holding that a juvenile proceeding does not commence until the filing of a complaint or a juvenile’s initial appearance in court.  Since M.W.’s statement was obtained before a complaint was filed against him, the court of appeals held that R.C. 2151.352 did not apply.  With regard to the lack of consultation with a parent or attorney before M.W. waived his Miranda rights, the Eighth District held that the Supreme Court’s decision In re C.S. addressed a juvenile’s waiver of his right to be represented by counsel at an in-court hearing after the court obtained jurisdiction over his case, and did not address interactions with police that took place before a complaint was filed.

M.W. sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Eighth District’s decision.

In  today’s majority opinion affirming the appellate court, Justice O’Donnell emphasized that this case hinged on the narrow legal question of whether, aside from Miranda, the language in R.C. 2151.352 that grants a separate statutory right to counsel during delinquency “proceedings” entitles a juvenile suspect to legal counsel before the jurisdiction of a juvenile court has been invoked by the filing of a complaint.

After analyzing the language of R.C. 2151.352, several dictionary definitions of  “proceedings,” the state’s Rules of Juvenile Procedure and prior court decisions interpreting what activities or events constitute “proceedings” in the context of criminal cases,  Justice O’Donnell concluded that “(T)he term ‘proceedings’ denotes acts or events taken between the time of commencing an action at law until the entry of a final judgment by a judicial tribunal.  ‘Proceedings’ evokes a court of law, not the investigatory action taken by police prior to the filing of a complaint or a juvenile’s initial appearance before a tribunal.” 

Justice O’Donnell wrote that in view of the plain language of R.C. 2151.352 and the court’s additional legal analysis, “(W)e conclude that an interrogation that occurs prior to the filing of a complaint alleging delinquency or prior to an appearance in juvenile court is not a proceeding that falls within the scope of R.C. Chapter 2151.  This determination is consistent with our duty to construe statutes to avoid unjust and unreasonable results. ...  In this case, the complaint filed by (the police) commenced the delinquency proceeding against M.W. and invoked the jurisdiction of the juvenile court and afforded M.W. the right to counsel pursuant to R.C. 2151.352.  Because (the officers’) interrogation of M.W. occurred prior to the filing of that complaint, M.W.’s statutory right to counsel had not attached.”

The majority opinion also pointed out that if the term “proceedings” were defined to include police interrogations prior to an indictment or complaint being filed, there would be no tribunal in place to appoint counsel at that point in time, and therefore common sense dictates that the “stage of the proceedings” language in the statute refers to proceedings that occur after the filing of a complaint or indictment.

Justice O’Donnell concluded by stressing that  “(T)he only claimed right to counsel in this appeal is a statutory one premised on R.C. 2151.352, and our narrow holding does not address any constitutional right to counsel or the issue of waiver.  Although M.W. had a Fifth Amendment right to counsel pursuant to Miranda, he did not exercise that right ... His Sixth Amendment right to counsel, which guarantees the right to counsel at all  ‘critical stages of the criminal proceedings’ ... had not yet attached because a complaint alleging delinquency had not yet been filed.”

Justice O’Donnell’s opinion was joined by Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton and Robert R. Cupp. 

In a separate opinion joined by Justice Cupp, Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger concurred in the majority judgment, indicating that the statute, juvenile rules and case law cited by the majority support its conclusion that the term “proceedings” in R.C. 2151.352 “relates to juvenile court proceedings that begin when a complaint alleging delinquency is filed.” 

Justice Lanzinger noted that the dissenting opinion in this case argues forcefully that a juvenile’s statutory right to counsel should arise at an earlier stage in delinquency cases, but wrote that in her view that issue was a matter of public policy to be addressed by the legislature.  Just as lawmakers recently amended the state’s witness intimidation statute to broaden the definition of a “witness,”  Justice Lanzinger wrote, “(T)he General Assembly may define the term ‘proceedings’ to include a statutory right to counsel for juveniles during ‘investigations of delinquency’ if it so chooses.”

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor entered a dissent, joined by Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and Yvette McGee Brown, stating that in her view “the majority’s holding offends the United States Supreme Court’s constitutional commands on a juvenile’s due process and Fifth Amendment rights, our own precedent, and the intent of the General Assembly in enacting R.C. 2151.352.”

Specifically, the Chief Justice disputed the majority’s narrow definition of the term “proceedings” as used in Ohio’s delinquency statutes, and wrote that the context and legislative history of R.C. 2151.352 indicate that the General Assembly intended it to confer on juveniles a statutory  right to counsel “at all stages” of delinquency cases that not only included, but went beyond the basic constitutional protections provided to adult criminal defendants by Miranda.

She wrote: “The General Assembly enacted R.C. 2151.352 in response to a series of directives from the United States Supreme Court calling for courts to ensure fundamental fairness in juvenile proceedings, including protecting juveniles’ right, from custodial interrogation through adjudication, not to incriminate themselves. Given those purposes, the majority’s construction of R.C. 2151.352 improperly vitiates the very purpose of the statute and thus violates the canon of statutory construction that forbids reading statutes in a manner that leads to absurd results or that defeats the purpose for which the statute was passed.  More importantly, it offends fundamental notions of due process and fairness.”

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

2011-0215. In re M.W., Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-4538.
Cuyahoga App. No. 94737, 2010-Ohio-6362.  Judgment affirmed.
Lundberg Stratton, O’Donnell, Lanzinger, and Cupp, JJ., concur.
O’Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer and McGee Brown, JJ., dissent.

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

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