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United States Supreme Court may address whether statements to mandatory reports are testimonial under the Confrontation Clause

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon determine whether it will hear an appeal on the 6th Amendment Confrontation Clause rights of a defendant convicted of assault and domestic violence on his girlfriend’s children. The petition requesting Supreme Court review was filed by the State of Ohio after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a defendant had a 6th Amendment right to confront the child victim of his alleged criminal acts, and that testimony of teachers and physicians acting as mandated reporters violated his constitutional right to confront his accuser.

The Case of Ohio v. Clark
The case, Ohio v. Clark, stems out of a grand jury indictment against the defendant on five counts of felonious assaults on children, two counts of endangering children, and two counts of domestic violence. The child victims in this case, two and three years old at the time, were dropped off at a Head Start program by the defendant when one of the daycare teachers noticed bruises and markings on the children. After asking the children several times about the bruises, the children mentioned a name later discovered to be the defendant’s nickname.

The injuries were then reported to Ohio’s department of children and family services, where social workers conducted interviews of the children, who implicated the defendant as the abuser once again. The social worker subsequently notified law enforcement, and took both children to the hospital to be examined by a physician, who concluded that the children were victims of recent abuse. A jury convicted the defendant of all but one charge, and the defendant was sentenced to a total of 28 years.

Confrontation Clause Challenge
Defense counsel attempted to exclude any testimony about the statements made by the children incriminating the defendant as the abuser. During the trial, defense counsel successfully argued that the children were incompetent to testify because of their young age. Since the children were barred from testifying, defense counsel raised a Confrontation Clause challenge to the admission of any of the children’s statements through any of the mandated reporters who investigated this case as “testimonial,” since the declarant children would not be available for cross-examination. The trial judge overruled the objection, and allowed the daycare teachers, investigating social workers and police officers to testify to the statements made by the children incriminating the defendant.

The Ohio Supreme Court agreed with the defendant by a slim majority, finding that the testimony of all the teachers, social workers, and police officers violated the defendant’s Confrontation Clause. Under U.S. Supreme Court precedence outlined in Davis v. Washington and Michigan v. Bryant, every defendant has a 6th Amendment right to confront his accusers. This right of confrontation requires the trial court to exclude any “testimonial” out-of-court statements by a declarant incriminating the defendant, where the defendant has not had an opportunity to cross-examine the declarant on those statements.

In the case of Ohio v. Clark, the Ohio Supreme Court found that the children’s statements to the teachers, social workers, and police officers were in fact testimonial, and so barred from evidence since the children were not competent to take the stand and be subject to cross-examination. The court’s determination relied on an analysis of the function of mandated reporters and the nature and purpose of the children’s incriminatory statements to the reporters.

Mandated Reporters as Agents of Law Enforcement

First, the court found that mandated reporters are effectively agents of law enforcement. By statute, teachers and social workers (among others) are obligated by law to report child abuse and neglect primarily to protect children. However, the court found that the legislature contemplated an inherent obligation to identify the perpetrators to law enforcement so that they may be prosecuted and prevented from causing more harm to the victim children. When mandated reporters identify such perpetrators to law enforcement, they are effectively acting as agents of law enforcement with the primary purpose of prosecuting the perpetrator. Therefore, any statements obtained by mandated reporters are testimonial and subject to the Confrontation Clause.

Testimonial vs. Non-Testimonial

Second, the court also found that the statements of the child victims to the teachers and social workers were in fact testimonial. A statement is testimonial if its primary purpose was to assist law enforcement in the investigation of a possible crime. Non-testimonial statements, which do not trigger the Confrontation Clause, are distinguishable in that their primary purpose is to assist law enforcement in meeting an ongoing emergency. Supreme Court case law emphasizes the importance of timing in these types of analyses – when viewed objectively, the circumstances surrounding a testimonial statement indicate that the statement serves a future goal of apprehending and prosecuting a criminal offender, whereas a non-testimonial statement is primarily relevant to an imminent and ongoing emergency.

The teachers and social workers did questioned the children both to determine the cause of their injuries and to identify their abusers in order to prevent them from causing the children more harm. In other words, the reporters were acting out of their statutory reporting duties when they questioned the children about their injuries. They did not question the children in order to provide emergency medical attention, and the children neither needed nor requested medical attention. Therefore, since the children made their statements in response to the repeated questioning of the mandated reporters acting as agents of law enforcement, the statements were testimonial.

To date, the U.S. Supreme Court has not determined whether the Confrontation Clause applies to statements made to non-law enforcement. To avoid infringing on the Supreme Court’s federal constitutional law jurisdiction, the Ohio Supreme Court interpreted the state legislation on mandatory reporting broadly so as to find mandatory reporters to be agents of law enforcement. By doing so, the Ohio court was able to apply Confrontation Clause review – which is applicable to only law enforcement personnel – to mandatory reporters as well. If the U.S. Supreme Court chooses to hear arguments in this case, defense attorneys will expect the Court’s decision to substantially impact a defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights, and possibly trigger changes in mandatory reporting legislation all across the country.

Attorney DelSignore regularly writes on issues regarding the Sixth Amendment and has chaired two seminars addressing Sixth Amendment issues that were presented by MCLE as part of continuing education for Massachusetts lawyers.

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