Ohio v. Clark

PETITIONER: State of Ohio
RESPONDENT: Darius Clark
LOCATION: William Patrick Day Head Start Center

DOCKET NO.: 13-1352
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: Ohio Supreme Court

CITATION: 576 US (2015)
GRANTED: Oct 02, 2014
ARGUED: Mar 02, 2015
DECIDED: Jun 18, 2015

ADVOCATES:
Jeffrey L. Fisher - for the respondent
Matthew Meyer - for the petitioner
Ilana Eisenstein - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae, for the petitioner

Facts of the case

On March 17, 2010, a preschool teacher at Cleveland's William Patrick Day Head Start Center noticed some facial injuries on one of her three-year-old students. When the teacher inquired about the injuries, the student indicated that his mother's boyfriend, Darius Clark, caused them. The teacher forwarded her concerns to a child-abuse hotline, which resulted in the arrest and subsequent charging of Clark for child abuse.

Prior to trial, a judge ruled the three-year-old child was incompetent to testify but refused to exclude the child's out-of-court identification of Clark as his abuser. Clark was found guilty. On appeal Clark claimed that the admission of the child's out-of-court statements violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him. The Supreme Court of Ohio reversed the lower court's ruling and held that, because state law required the teacher to report suspected incidences of child abuse, the teacher was acting as an agent for law enforcement when inquiring about the child's injuries. Therefore, the child's out-of-court statements could only be admitted if the primary purpose of the teacher's questioning was to address an ongoing emergency, as opposed to attempting to establish past events. Because the child was not in immediate danger of further injury, the out-of-court statement could not be admitted.

Question

1. Does an individual’s obligation to report suspected child abuse make that individual an agent of law enforcement for purposes of the Confrontation Clause?
2. Do a child’s out-of-court statements to a teacher in response to the teacher’s concerns about potential child abuse qualify as “testimonial” statements subject to the Confrontation Clause?

Media for Ohio v. Clark

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 02, 2015 in Ohio v. Clark

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 18, 2015 in Ohio v. Clark

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Alito has the opinion of the court in two cases this morning.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

The first case is Ohio v. Clark, Number 13-1352.

This case presents the question whether the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment bars the admission of out-of-court statements that were made by a young abused child to his teachers.

The petitioner in this case is Darius Clark.

He sent his girlfriend from Ohio to the District of Columbia to engage in prostitution, and he agreed to care for her two young children while she was gone.

The next day Clark took one of the children, a three-year-old boy L.P., to preschool.

Shortly after L.P. arrived at school, his teachers noticed injuries on his face.

They asked him what happened, and he identified Clark as his abuser.

The teachers notified authorities, and Clark was eventually arrested and indicted on multiple counts relating to his abuse of L.P. and also his girlfriend's 18-month-old daughter.

At trial, state prosecutors introduced the statements that L.P. made to his teachers, but L.P. was not able to testify because of his young age.

Clark objected arguing that the state's use of these out of court statements would violate his rights under the Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause, which provides that in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him.

The trial judge rejected Clark's argument and admitted the evidence.

The jury convicted Clark on multiple counts, and he was sentenced to 28 years imprisonment.

A State Appellate Court reversed the conviction holding that the state's use of L.P.'s statements violated the Confrontation Clause, and the Supreme Court of Ohio affirmed.

We disagree. In Crawford v. Washington, the Court took a new approach to the interpretation of the Confrontation Clause, and this has spawned a regular stream of cases in this Court.

Crawford held that the Confrontation Clause generally prohibits the introduction of “testimonial statements” by witnesses who do not appear at trial unless the witness is unavailable to testify and the defendant had a prior opportunity to cross-examine the witness.

In later cases we have explained that a statement is testimonial if its primary purpose was to create an out of court substitute for trial testimony.

When conducting that primary purpose inquiry, we consider all of the relevant circumstances.

If there is no primary purpose then a statement cannot violate the Confrontation Clause.

Considering all of the relevant circumstances here, it is clear that L.P.'s statements were not testimonial, and therefore the Confrontation Clause does not apply.

L.P.'s statements and his teachers' questions occurred during an ongoing emergency, and the conversation was aimed at resolving a serious threat to L.P.'s safety.

Nothing about the discussion suggested that its primary purpose was to gather evidence for Clark's prosecution.

It is also significant that the conversation occurred immediately after the teachers noticed L.P.'s injuries and that it took place in the informal setting of a preschool classroom and cafeteria.

Those circumstances were markedly different from the formal police interrogations we have found problematic in other cases.

L.P.'s age is also highly relevant. Statements by young children will rarely, if ever, qualify as testimonial because most young children do not understand the criminal justice system enough to know, let alone intend, that their out of court statements will be used as evidence in a criminal trial.

Moreover, there is strong historical evidence that statements in circumstances like these, where a young child reports abuse to an adult, would have been admissible in criminal cases at common law.

Finally, although we decline to hold that statements to individuals who are not law enforcement officers are categorically outside the Confrontation Clause's reach, it is relevant that L.P. was speaking to his teachers and not the police.

Statements to individuals who are not charged with uncovering and prosecuting crimes are much less likely to be testimonial than statements to law enforcement officers.

For these reasons we hold that the Confrontation Clause did not prohibit prosecutors from introducing L.P.'s statements during Clark's criminal trial.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Ohio is reversed.