Oral Argument Preview: Does a Juvenile Have the Right to Counsel at the Interrogation Stage of the Proceedings? In re M.W.

On Oct. 3, 2012, the Supreme Court handed down a merit decision in this case.  Read the analysis here.

Read the analysis of the oral argument here.

On December 6, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of In re M.W., 2011-0215. The issue in this case is whether an interrogation of a juvenile as allowed under R.C. 2151.311 constitutes a “stage of the proceeding” against the juvenile under R.C. 2151.352 and requires the child to be represented by a parent, guardian custodian, or an attorney before waiving his or her right to counsel under Miranda.

Fifteen-year-old M.W. and another juvenile robbed a victim at gunpoint.  A couple of days after this incident M.W. was stopped by police for another matter, at which time he admitted that he had acted as a lookout for the other juvenile in the robbery. M.W. was then taken to the police station where he agreed to make a written statement. He was not given an opportunity to consult with a parent or an attorney before he was questioned by the police. M.W. was informed of his Miranda rights and given a written statement of those rights.  M.W. read over his rights and waived them, saying he wanted to make the written statement. Later at trial, M.W. admitted that he read and understood his rights, waived his rights, acknowledged that he signed the waiver of his rights, but claimed that the officer was lying about his written statement.  M.W was adjudicated delinquent for aggravated robbery with a firearm specification, and committed to the Ohio Department of Youth Services for a minimum of 12 months and a maximum not to exceed his reaching the age of 21.

 M.W. appealed to the Eighth District Court of Appeals. His assignments of error concerned the admission of his written statement into evidence and the denial of his right to counsel during the interrogation. The Eighth District affirmed the finding of the trial court, finding that an investigatory interrogation is not a stage of the proceedings under R.C. 2151.352 and that a juvenile proceeding does not commence until the filing of a complaint.

M.W. appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio. The proposition of law advanced by M.W. is that “[a] child has the right to counsel at all stages of the proceedings against him. Because Ohio’s General Assembly has designated interrogation as a stage of the proceedings, a child must be represented by his parent, guardian, custodian, or an attorney before the child can waive his right to counsel pursuant to Miranda.”  

For his proposition of law, M.W. relies on In re C.S., 2007-Ohio-4919.  In that case, the juvenile court judge accepted a voluntary waiver of counsel by a juvenile who had his mother with him at the proceeding. However, the Supreme Court of Ohio held that a multi-factor totality of the circumstances test must be applied to decide the validity of a waiver of counsel by a juvenile in a delinquency proceeding, and that the waiver of counsel was not valid in that case.  The Court recognized that courts must “take special care in scrutinizing a purported confession or waiver by a child.” M.W. argues that these principles should be applied to a waiver of counsel during any police interrogation before the commencement of delinquency proceedings.  This understanding requires an adult, such as a parent, guardian, custodian, or attorney, to advise the juvenile before a waiver of the right to counsel is made.

M.W. also argues that interrogation is a stage of the proceeding and therefore covered under R.C. 2151.352. If the General Assembly had intended for R.C. 2151.352 to apply only to “court proceedings” or “hearings,” it would have said so. Interrogation is identified as a “stage of the proceedings” under Chapter 2151 of the Code, so a child’s statutory right to counsel attaches at interrogation.

The state disagrees with M.W.’s interpretation of R.C. 2151.352. The state goes into considerable detail over the legislative history of R.C. 2151. 352. While acknowledging that “state of the proceeding” is not a defined statutory term, the state argues that the requirement of giving words their plain and ordinary meaning,  plus the legislative history of R.C. 2151.352 and its predecessor statutes and subsequent amendments establish that the words “stage of the proceedings” mean judicial proceedings in juvenile court. Custodial interrogation is not a stage of the proceedings.

The state also argues that the presence of a parent or attorney is not constitutionally required before a juvenile can waive his Miranda rights, and that therefore this case is strictly one of statutory interpretation.

The state finally argues that In re C.S. does not support M.W.’s proposition of law. The Court limited its holding in In Re CS  to the constitutional right to counsel in delinquency proceedings only.

An amicus brief has been filed in support of M.W. by the Juvenile Law Center, joined by many others. The amici argue that the right to counsel is essential at the interrogation phase of a delinquency proceeding, and urge the Court to adopt a bright line rule that juveniles must have meaningful access to counsel during police interrogations before waiving their Miranda rights.

 Student Contributor: Jason Persinger

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