Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Teen’s Sex Crimes Confession to Caseworker Can Be Used in Court

A Cuyahoga County child-abuse investigator did not violate the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old boy when she provided police with a confession she obtained from him in which he admitted having sexual activity with a 12-year-old girl, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Supreme Court ruled that the child-abuse investigator was not required to provide Miranda warnings to the boy, identified in court records as M.H., before interviewing him alone at the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services offices in December 2015. However, a divided Court determined that M.H.’s due process rights were not violated when prosecutors used his confession to the investigator in juvenile court.

In the Court’s lead opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote that the Miranda warnings were not necessary because the child-abuse investigator was not a law enforcement officer or acting under the direction or control of the police. Justice Kennedy also stated that under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, M.H.’s due process rights were not violated because no “police conduct” was involved in obtaining the confession.

Justices Patrick F. Fischer and R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Kennedy’s decision. Justice Judith L. French concurred in judgment only.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Melody J. Stewart wrote that the child-abuse investigator, a former homicide detective, acted coercively to obtain M.H.’s involuntary confession. Justice Stewart wrote the investigator knew that she would be reporting any potential criminal acts to police. Justice Stewart stated that the U.S. Supreme Court does not limit the use of coercive behavior to police officers, but to any government official who pressures someone to make a statement with the intention of providing the information to law enforcement.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Michael P. Donnelly joined Justice Stewart’s dissent.

The majority’s decision affirmed the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which overturned a Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court’s decision to suppress M.H.’s confession. The case was remanded to the juvenile court for further proceedings.

Investigator Arranged Interview
Esther Bradley, a child-protection specialist in the children and family services’ abuse intake unit, previously served as a police detective in Atlanta, Georgia. Bradley was assigned to investigate a report that M.H. had engaged in sexual activity with a girl identified as J.M., who was the daughter of the M.H.’s mother’s boyfriend.

Bradley sent M.H.’s mother a letter specifying a time and place to interview her son. M.H.’s mother stated that in neither the letter nor a follow-up phone call did Bradley inform her that M.H. was a suspect in an investigation. M.H.’s mother stated that she did not know she could decline the interview but was aware of allegations that M.H. had touched J.M. in her sleep.

At the agency’s offices, Bradley told M.H.’s mother the interview would be private and she could not accompany her son. M.H. was taken to a room, and he was not advised of his Miranda rights before Bradley began to interview him. M.H. admitted to Bradley that he engaged in sexual activity with J.M.

Bradley reported her interview information with M.H. to police. The Cleveland police department assigned Detective Christina Cottom to the case. In August 2016, the detective filed a juvenile-delinquency complaint, alleging M.H. committed two counts of rape and two counts of gross sexual imposition during his encounter with J.M.

Prosecutors sought to admit the incriminating statements M.H. made to Bradley, while an attorney for M.H. asked the juvenile court to suppress the statement. M.H. maintained he had been questioned before receiving the required Miranda warnings and that admitting the statement would violate his due process rights.

At a suppression hearing, Bradley stated she had a “dual purpose” for interviewing M.H. She wanted to determine if any inappropriate sexual activities occurred between the two minors and to ensure J.M.’s safety. Bradley stated that children and family services has a relationship with law enforcement and regularly shares information with police. She also said she knew a detective had been assigned to the case.

Bradley maintained she is not “law enforcement” and her role is to make sure families and children receive services they need.

Cottom testified that she normally coordinates with children and family services to interview alleged victims. In this case, however, Bradley already had interviewed the two children before the officer was able to contact Bradley. Cottom stated she relied on the information from Bradley and did not interview M.H. or direct Bradley to interview him.

The trial court granted M.H.’s motion to suppress the statement, finding the relationship between the agency and the police “a little close for comfort.”

The Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office appealed the decision to the Eighth District, which reversed the juvenile court’s ruling. M.H. appealed the Eighth District’s decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Precedent Favors Prosecution’s Position
Justice Kennedy noted that the precedent established by the Ohio Supreme Court’s 2018 State v. Jackson ruling resolved the issue of whether Bradley had to read M.H. his Miranda rights. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1986 Colorado v. Connelly decision prompted the Court to conclude that M.H.’s due process rights were not violated, she added.

The lead opinion explained that in Jackson, the Court held that a children and family services’ social worker is not a law-enforcement officer because the worker lacks the power to arrest the accused. While social workers have the duty to report findings of abuse they uncover to police, the duty to cooperate does not convert social workers into law-enforcement agents.

The Court also explained that if “coercive police activity” is involved in gaining a confession, the confession is not voluntary and constitutes a violation of the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Court determined that police activity did not play a role in eliciting M.H.’s confession. Bradley was not a law enforcement agent or under the control of law enforcement when she interviewed M.H., the lead opinion stated. The detective was not involved in interviewing M.H. and received Bradley’s report from the interview about two months after it occurred.

“And under the Supreme Court’s holding in Connelly, which we are obligated to follow, the lack of a causal connection between police conduct and M.H.’s confession is fatal to his claim that his confession was coerced in violation of federal due-process rights,” the lead opinion stated.

While the dissent maintained that the Connelly decision was not limited to police involvement in obtaining an involuntary confession, the lead opinion stated M.H. cannot cite one U.S. Supreme Court case in which a confession obtained by a public employee who was not law enforcement was suppressed as a violation of due process.

How Confession Obtained Determines Due Process Violation, Dissent Stated
In her dissent, Justice Stewart wrote she agreed with the lead opinion that Bradley was not required to read M.H. his Miranda rights before interviewing him, but found the conduct violated M.H.’s due process rights.

The dissenting opinion stated the U.S. Supreme Court did not make police involvement the key factor in determining whether a confession was inadmissible as evidence, but rather if any “state actor” coerced the statement. The opinion stated several federal and state courts have interpreted the U.S. Supreme Court decisions to mean that any government agency employee whose questioning “is of a nature that reasonably contemplates criminal prosecution” cannot be coercive.

Bradley admitted she advised J.M. and her mother in September 2015 to file a police report about the incident, and then set up the interview with M.H. in December 2015. Bradley knew the police report had been filed and a detective assigned to the case, and she stated she knew criminal charges were a “strong possibility.” She also said one of the interview’s purposes was to find out whether M.H. engaged in any criminal sexual activity.

The dissent noted that Bradley arranged the interview with M.H.’s mother and never informed M.H. of the seriousness of the allegations against him. The opinion stated there was no evidence the 13-year-old knew or understood his rights not to answer Bradley’s questions as he sat in a room alone with her, and no adult was present to represent M.H.’s interests.

“These facts demonstrate that Bradley’s questioning of M.H. was designed in large part to assist the state in its investigation and prosecution of M.H.,” the dissent stated.

The dissent concluded the totality of the circumstances indicated that M.H.’s statements were made involuntarily. The dissent would affirm the juvenile court’s decision to suppress the confession.

2019-0621. In re M.H., Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-5485.

Video camera icon View oral argument video of this case.

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.

Adobe PDF PDF files may be viewed, printed, and searched using the free Acrobat® Reader
Acrobat Reader is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated.