Oral Argument Preview: Does A Juvenile Court’s Failure to Follow Procedures under Ohio’s Safe Harbor Law for Victims of Human Trafficking Invalidate the Juvenile’s Transfer to Adult Court? State of Ohio v. Alexis Martin.

Read an analysis of the argument here.

On January 23, 2018, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of State of Ohio v. Alexis Martin, 2016-1891. At issue in this case is whether a juvenile court’s failure to apply Ohio’s Safe Harbor law when it became aware of the juvenile’s status as a human trafficking victim voided an otherwise proper bindover procedure, or if the juvenile’s subsequent guilty plea waived her ability to challenge this issue. Judge Michael T. Hall of the Second District Court of Appeals will sit for Justice O’Neill, who has recused himself from hearing any new cases until he leaves the Court January 26, 2018.

Case Background

On November 7, 2013, two men broke into an Akron home where they proceeded to shoot two individuals, killing one and injuring the other. Martin, only 15 years old at the time, was present during the incident. According to Martin, the adult man who died had been involved in human trafficking, including the trafficking of Martin, and the other adult man who survived his injuries was raping Martin when he was attacked. According to the state, no such findings were made about the two victims. At age 15, Martin could not consent to having sex with an adult male.

Law enforcement believed that Martin was involved in organizing this robbery gone awry. The two male shooters, and another female participant in the crime have since pleaded guilty to their involvement and received life sentences.

As a juvenile, Martin was originally charged as a delinquent child for aggravated murder, attempted murder, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, felonious assault, and tampering with evidence. The State sought a discretionary transfer to the Summit County Court of Common Pleas. During the amenability hearing, Juvenile Court Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio discussed Martin’s status as a trafficking victim, which was substantiated. The judge found that beyond a history of sexual abuse, the decedent had kidnapped and trafficked Martin. However, neither the judge nor Martin’s lawyer raised Ohio’s Safe Harbor Law, R.C. 2152.021(F) (“Safe Harbor Law”). Instead, Martin’s argument against transfer focused on traditional amenability factors. However, the juvenile court found in favor of transfer, and relinquished its jurisdiction. In its order, the judge cited, among other things, the severity of the offenses and the low likelihood of rehabilitation in the juvenile court system.

Following transfer, Martin moved Common Pleas Court Judge Tom Parker to vacate the bindover order on the ground of lack of jurisdiction, because of the failure of the juvenile court to consider and adhere to the procedures set forth in the Safe Harbor Law. However, Judge Parker dismissed this motion, finding he lacked jurisdiction to consider it.  Martin ultimately pleaded guilty to murder with a firearm specification and to felonious assault. She received a sentence of 21 years to life.

The Appeal

In a unanimous opinion authored by Judge Carla Moore, joined by Judges Donna Carr and Jennifer Hensal, the Ninth District Court of Appeals  upheld the decision of the trial court. The appeals court held that the only proper basis for a challenge to the discretionary bindover statute is a challenge to the violation of the statute itself, and failure to follow the safe harbor provision is not a proper basis for such a challenge. Further, the appeals court found that Martin’s guilty plea waived all non-jurisdictional errors.

Votes to Accept the Case

Yes: Justices O’Donnell, French, O’Neill, and Fischer.

No: Chief Justice O’Connor and Justices Kennedy and DeWine.

Key Statutes and Precedent

R.C. 2905.32 (Ohio’s human trafficking statute) (Defining human trafficking victim as an individual who is either compelled to engage in sex for hire or is under the age of 16 and participates in sex for hire.  Defining human trafficking as the recruitment of a person to engage in a performance that is obscene, sexually oriented, or nudity oriented.)

R.C. 2152.021(F) Complaint of Delinquency)(Requires appointment of a guardian ad litem for any juvenile believed to be the victim of human trafficking. Safe Harbor refers to the statutory mechanism that grants courts the ability to hold complaint against juveniles believed to be human trafficking victims in abeyance and allow them to have criminal charges expunged if they complete a diversion program.)

R.C. 2151.23(H) (Jurisdiction of juvenile court.)

R.C. 2152.12 (B)(Discretionary bindover statute for juveniles)(Subsections D and E provide factors for and against transfer of cases from juvenile to adult court.)

State v. Childs, 14 Ohio St.2d 56 (1968) (syllabus) (When a party “could have called but did not call to the trial court’s attention at a time when such error could have been avoided or corrected by the trial court,” then that issue should not be subject to appellate review.)

State v. Wilson, 73 Ohio St.3d 40 (1995) (syllabus) ( Absent a proper bindover procedure, the juvenile court has exclusive, non-waivable subject matter jurisdiction over any case concerning a child who is alleged to be delinquent.)

Johnson v. Timmerman–Cooper, 2001-Ohio-1803 (“Absent a proper bindover procedure…, the jurisdiction of a juvenile court is exclusive and cannot be waived.”)

State v. D.W., 2012-Ohio-4544 (Due process applies to bindover proceedings because a successful transfer is a critical stage of a juvenile case.)

State v. Legg, 2016-Ohio-801(4th Dist.) (Finding that a challenge to a proper bindover procedure included a challenge to the juvenile court’s probable cause determination.)

State v. Morgan, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-7565 (Applying the criminal plain error doctrine to juvenile proceedings, specifically for issues a juvenile failed to raise during an amenability hearing.)

Juvenile Human Trafficking, Ohio Laws & Safe Harbor Response, Sup. Ct. Ohio (Offering guidance to juvenile courts and the implementation of Ohio’s newly adopted laws on human trafficking. “Ohio juvenile courts may use Safe Harbor protections broadly, regardless of the instant charge against the juvenile or juvenile’s history of adjudication or criminal history.”)

Martin’s Argument

The Ninth District’s affirmance of an erroneous bindover proceeding frustrates and contravenes the policies the General Assembly enacted through Ohio’s Safe Harbor Laws. This policy was designed to investigate, not ignore, claims of trafficking, and hold those traffickers accountable.

Under this statute, a juvenile court is bound to follow five procedural mandates when a juvenile is alleged to be a victim of human trafficking. Among the requirements, a juvenile court must appoint a guardian ad litem for the child, and conduct a hearing to determine whether diversion is appropriate.  The Safe Harbor Law is a protective statute. Most of the obligations under that law are the court’s to perform. Because a successful bindover divests the juvenile court of its jurisdiction, it is incumbent upon that court to assess and perform its obligations under the Safe Harbor Law, before it transfers the case. The juvenile court failed to follow any of these statutory obligations. And, even though it found a “clear history of human trafficking,” there was not a single mention of Ohio’s Safe Harbor Law throughout the bindover process.

The State seeks to impose more stringent requirements in applying the Safe Harbor Law, which contradicts this Court’s own publication stating that these protections should be interpreted “broadly.” For example, the State’s claim that the Safe Harbor Law only applies to nonviolent offenses ignores the text of the statute. These “lofty burdens” and additional requirements are a means to distract from the fact that Martin was a trafficking victim who was deprived of the protections that accompany that victim-status.

While Martin’s counsel failed to raise this issue, this omission did not absolve the juvenile court of its duties. Therefore, the bindover is void and should be vacated. Furthermore, settled law in Ohio allows for a juvenile to challenge an erroneous bindover, even if that juvenile subsequently pleaded guilty. And, contrary to the State’s argument, this argument was preserved for appellate review.

Thus, Martin did not waive her claims under the Safe Harbor Law. The Ninth District should be reversed, Martin’s convictions vacated, and this case remanded to the juvenile court with instructions to appoint a guardian ad litem and to consider the application of the Safe Harbor Law to the facts of this case.

State’s Argument

Pursuant to the longstanding principles of waiver, Martin’s failure to invoke the procedures of R.C. 2152.021(F) waived any subsequent challenge to transfer, and therefore the Ninth District’s decision should be affirmed.

The doctrine of waiver was created to prevent litigants from taking a “second bite at the apple.” Yet, Martin seeks review of an issue she did not raise, and has tried to supplement an insufficient record with conclusory statements and extrinsic evidence notably absent from the bindover proceedings. This Court should not consider these “post hoc tactics,” nor should the Court take judicial notice of materials outside the record about human trafficking, as Martin requests.

Furthermore, this Court recently recognized, in State v. Morgan, that criminal plain error applies to errors in amenability hearings, but Martin has failed to present any arguments regarding plain error during this appeal. Although, even if she had, the juvenile court did not commit plain error by not invoking the Safe Harbor Law procedures sua sponte.

Contrary to Martin’s assertions, the plain language of the Safe Harbor Law is not jurisdictional in nature, and does not create a “clear statutory mandate.” Much like Morgan, which also involved a juvenile court that did not appoint a guardian ad litem sua sponte, there should be no jurisdictional barrier for transfers based on this procedural requirement.

However, if the Court does address the merits of this case, it should find that Ohio’s Safe Harbor law did not apply to Martin. The protection offered by the law is limited to offenses related to trafficking, and does not shield Martin’s crimes of murder and attempted murder. The law was enacted to protect victims of trafficking from being prosecuted for the crimes of soliciting or prostitution that they were compelled to perform; not to excuse an individual for violent crimes like murder. The application of similar laws across the country follow this same rationale.

As to Morgan’s second proposed proposition of law, while it is true that a juvenile offender can still challenge a juvenile court’s probable cause or amenability determination after transfer to adult court, a plea of guilty operates as a waiver of other unrelated procedural issues that were not raised in juvenile court, such as failure to appoint a guardian ad litem. Here, Morgan has waived any issue of failure to apply R.C. 2152.021 (F).

The decision of the Ninth District should be affirmed.

Martin’s Proposed Proposition of Law No. 1

Once a court determines that a juvenile defendant is a human trafficking victim, the court must appoint a Guardian Ad Litem, consider the child’s trafficking status, and determine whether the complaint filed in delinquency is related to the child’s victimization prior to conducting certification and bindover proceedings.

Martin’s Proposed Proposition of Law No. 2

A juvenile does not waive issues related to a legally defective bindover proceeding by pleading guilty in common pleas court.

Amici in Support of Martin

The Justice for Children Project

The Justice for Children Project (the “Project”) filed an amicus brief in support of Martin. In its brief the Project sought to further educate the Court on the dynamics of human trafficking, and apply those concepts and its effects to Martin. Despite substantial evidence supporting Martin’s status as a victim of trafficking, the juvenile court failed to consider Ohio’s Safe Harbor law that was enacted to protect victims like Martin. The juvenile court recognized that Martin been manipulated, and abused emotionally and sexually, yet failed to follow the procedures Martin was entitled to.

The Human Trafficking Law Clinic of Case Western Reserve University School of Law

The Human Trafficking Law Clinic of Case Western Reserve University School of Law (“Law Clinic”) filed an amicus brief in support of Martin. The Clinic is a non-profit clinic dedicated to representing juvenile and adult sex-trafficking victims in Ohio.

Similar to Martin’s brief and the other amici, the Law Clinic emphasized the traumatic record of abuse Martin suffered, which began when she only nine years old. Furthermore, Martin’s attorney—who failed to raise the Safe Harbor Law during the amenability hearing—later admitted his ineffectiveness, and cited his misunderstanding of the applicable statute. Martin was entitled to the protections of R.C. 2152.021(F). She did not receive them. Therefore, this Court should rectify the prejudice created by the mistakes of the juvenile court and Martin’s prior attorney.

The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center

The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center (“HT Pro Bono”) filed an amicus brief in support of Martin. HT Pro Bono is a nonprofit organization supporting trafficking survivors nationwide as they seek justice, with a particular interest in preventing the prosecution and conviction of trafficking victims for crimes committed in the course of their trafficking. HT Pro Bono focused its discussion on safe harbor laws in Ohio and across the country. A majority of states now have such laws. These new policies recognize that victims should not be criminalized as a result of their exploitation. Martin was exploited and manipulated by her traffickers; she was not a manipulator as alleged by the State. These laws support a broad and liberal application of the protections encompassed therein, and surely do not support the wholesale denial of process that occurred in Martin’s case. HT Pro Bono asks the Court to reverse Martin’s convictions and send the case back to juvenile court for proper consideration of the Safe Harbor law.

Student Contributor: Jefferson Kisor


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