Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Juvenile Court Did Not Have Power to Grant Minors Immunity For Testifying in Criminal Case

While it is a division of the Warren County Common Pleas Court, the county probate-juvenile court does not have the same authority of a common pleas court to grant witness immunity in a criminal case, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that divisions of the common pleas court, such as probate, domestic relations, and juvenile, do not have the same broad powers of the general division of the common pleas court unless specifically granted by state law. In its decision, the Court noted that only juvenile courts in eight counties have the same powers as the general division.

At the request of Jessica Reynolds, a defendant in a criminal case, the Court vacated a grant of immunity from prosecution to two juveniles provided by Juvenile-Probate Court Judge Joseph W. Kirby. Reynolds stated that an improper grant of immunity could jeopardize her case, which has traveled between the trial court and appeals court since 2018.

Immunity Sought to Compel Witness Testimony
In 2018 Reynolds was charged with a misdemeanor count of domestic violence and child endangering related to her juvenile son, identified in court records as L.C. The case was heard by Warren County Court Judge Gary Loxley. Warren County Court, like a municipal court, has jurisdiction to consider misdemeanor cases.

After conducting a bench trial, Judge Loxley convicted Reynolds of both charges. Reynolds appealed to the Twelfth District Court of Appeals, which vacated her convictions in 2020. The appeals court ruled the trial court did not follow the proper procedures to conduct a bench trial. The appeals court also found the county court did not have jurisdiction to hear the child endangering charge, which must be heard by the probate-juvenile court.

The Warren County Prosecutor’s Office sought to retry Reynolds for the domestic violence charge. The prosecutor asked that Judge Loxley grant an application for immunity to L.C. that requires him to testify but provides immunity for any criminal act about which the witness will testify.

Citing R.C. 2945.44, Judge Loxley denied the request, finding the application for immunity must be filed in common pleas court.

The prosecutor then submitted an immunity request for L.C. and his stepbrother with Probate-Juvenile Judge Kirby. Immunity was needed because L.C. described the events leading to the charges differently to his mother’s lawyer than he had initially told law enforcement. In 2021, Judge Kirby granted immunity to both witnesses.

Reynolds sought a writ of mandamus or, alternatively, prohibition from the Supreme Court in 2022 to compel Judge Kirby to vacate his immunity grant, arguing he did not have the authority to provide immunity. She also requested a writ of mandamus to compel Warren County Prosecuting Attorney David Fornshell to petition the common pleas court general division for a grant of immunity for the two witnesses in her pending trial. Judge Kirby maintained he was authorized by R.C. 2945.44 to grant immunity.

Supreme Court Analyzed Immunity Law
R.C. 2954.44(A) states that if a witness refuses to answer questions or produce information based on the right against self-incrimination, the common pleas court in the county in which the proceeding is being held can compel a witness to do so. Under the law, the prosecutor must request  the common pleas court to make the witness testify, and the common pleas court must inform the witness that by answering or producing information, the witness will receive immunity from prosecution.

The per curiam opinion stated the Supreme Court must determine whether the reference to common pleas court in R.C. 2945.44 applies to all divisions of the court. The opinion noted that based on the Ohio Constitution and state law, the common pleas court general division has jurisdiction over all types of cases except the most minor criminal offenses and minor civil cases.

Like the general division, probate courts were established by the Ohio Constitution. Juvenile courts were created only by state law and they possess only the jurisdiction granted by the General Assembly, the opinion noted. Juvenile Courts only have the powers conferred upon them by R.C. 2151 and R.C. 2152. Nothing in those two chapters gives the juvenile court authority to grant immunity, the opinion stated.

However, state lawmakers have granted juvenile divisions and domestic relations divisions in some counties with the same powers as the general division. Warren County is not among them, the Court stated. The power was granted to the juvenile courts in Butler, Greene, Lake, Lucas, Mahoning, Montgomery,  Richland, and Summit counties.

The Supreme Court noted the other potential source of power that could be invoked by the probate-juvenile court is its status as a probate court. The primary powers granted to probate courts are listed in R.C. 2101.24 and give them the right to decide numerous matters related to probate estates, guardianship, trusts, and postdeath disputes, the opinion noted.

The law spells out three circumstances in which the probate court has the same authority as the general division. However, the right to grant immunity is not expressly granted to probate courts, the Court stated. In his capacity of presiding over both the juvenile and probate courts, Judge Kirby still does not have the authority to grant immunity to the two minors, the opinion stated, and the Court granted a writ of prohibition compelling Kirby to vacate his orders.

A grant of immunity must come from the general division, the Court noted, as it considered Reynolds’s second request to force the prosecutor to petition the general division for immunity. Fornshell argued Reynolds has no legal right to force him to apply for witness immunity.

The Court again pointed to the provisions of R.C. 2945.44(A), which stated a prosecutor “may” apply for witness immunity. Because the discretion to apply is with the prosecutor, the Court rejected Reynolds’ request to force Fornshell to comply.

2020-0630. State ex rel. Reynolds v. Kirby, Slip Opinion No. 2023-Ohio-782.

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.

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