Ohio v. Clark

Ohio v. Clark, 576 US ___ (2015)

Facts

Respondent Clark was accused of child abuse based on the observation of red marks and statements made by a 3-year-old child in his custody. The child’s statements were admitted as evidence at trial, but the child was not available or allowed to testify. Clark was convicted of multiple counts of child abuse. Clark appealed to the appellate and then Ohio Supreme Courts alleging a violation of his Sixth Amendment rights under the confrontation clause. The appellate court reversed the conviction on constitutional grounds and this decision was sustained by the Ohio Supreme Court. The State of Ohio appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Issues

Whether, consistent with the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, statements made by a child to a teacher are admissible in court without the opportunity for cross-examination.

Held

9-0 for the State of Ohio. The introduction of statements by the child at trial did not violate the Sixth Amendment and was not a violation of the Confrontation Clause. Case reversed and remanded to the Ohio courts.

Reasoning

In the unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Alito, and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, as well as Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, the court reasoned that the statements made by the child to his teacher was not for the purpose of gathering evidence or testimony for trial, and thus the collection of these statements by teachers and the subsequent admission of at trial was permitted. The spontaneous and informal nature of the discussion with the teacher, the lack of law enforcement involvement during the questioning by the teacher, historical allowance for admission at common law as well as the age of the child all contributed to the court’s reasoning to allow the admission of the child’s testimony at trial.

Opinion and Comments

The justices in the majority, relying heavily on Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. 813 (2006) and Michigan v. Bryant, 562 U. S. 344 (2011), took the position that the gathering of the information from the child was not predominantly testimonial, but was in response to an “ongoing emergency” and thus was not predominantly for the purpose of creating a testimonial record. They also noted that the informal nature of the discussion with the child was an indicium of the teacher’s attempt to understand a potentially dangerous situation as opposed to gathering evidence for future prosecution. While the Court noted that just because the statements weren’t made to law enforcement doesn’t preclude their exclusion from evidence, the fact that the gathering of the statements was not intended for prosecution and was not to a law enforcement officer was a critical factor in their findings.

The Court also noted that mandatory reporter laws do not necessarily make these statements evidence gathered in anticipation of prosecution and thus subject to the Confrontation Clause, rejecting Clark’s primary argument for their exclusion.

While Justices Scalia and Thomas concurred in the judgement of the court, they did not concur in the opinion, and wrote separate opinions. Both noted that the Court’s opinion did not go far enough in defining the criteria by which they should be allowed to be included as evidence.  Scalia goes one step further, noting that the Sixth Amendment should place the burden of proof on the prosecution for inclusion when evidence is challenged by a defendant.

The practical outcome of this case is that mandatory reporter laws do not necessarily preclude the introduction of statements made to mandatory reporters into evidence in a criminal trial, and that the totality of the circumstances under which those statements are made will be evaluated by the courts to determine admissibility under the Sixth Amendment where the person making the statement is unavailable for testimony.