Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Ohio legislature addresses juveniles' right to counsel

Earlier this month the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Ohio laws do not entitle juveniles to the right to an attorney before charges are filed. Ohio legislators are now taking action to ensure that courts offer juveniles the same legal rights as adults, reported the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

The legislation, co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Ross McGregor of Springfield, would require that any children under 18, unless emancipated, be told their rights before interrogation: their right to speak to an attorney, their right to remain silent and their right to speak to a parent or guardian before answering any questions.

It would also ensure that confessions made by children without the presence of a parent, guardian, custodian or attorney could not be admitted into evidence and that no parent may waive any right on behalf of the minor.

According to the Plain-Dealer, the Supreme Court decision was the result of the arrest of a juvenile offender stopped by a Cleveland police officer. He was driving without a valid license, but wrongly assumed he was being stopped for a crime he had committed the previous day. Due to the confusion, the minor confessed to the officer that he had served as a lookout during a robbery. He was arrested, advised of his constitutional rights, signed a waiver of those rights and signed a confession of his role in the robbery without an attorney or guardian present.

After he was found guilty, the minor appealed on grounds that the trial court should not have admitted his written statement into evidence because authorities had failed to provide him with an attorney. Ohio law states that juvenile offenders have a right to representation by legal counsel "at all stages of proceedings."

The Ohio Supreme Court's majority opinion written by Justice Terrence O'Donnell concluded that "proceedings" only refer to actions and events after charges have been filed or after the juvenile appears in court. Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger's concurring opinion gave a nod to the General Assembly, saying the issue was a matter of public policy that the legislature could address.

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor's dissenting opinion said the ruling "defies law, logic and common sense" and "offends fundamental notions of due process and fairness."

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said the legislation would prevent courts from looking at cases on an individual basis. He said despite the ruling's language, minors are currently advised that they have a right to a lawyer, and when they waive that right courts look at surrounding circumstances specific to the child when deciding whether or not to admit resulting information into evidence.

"That blanket view ignores the circumstances of each case that the courts have used for over 25 years -- a 17-year, 11-month-old person of high intelligence who has had prior contact with law enforcement, is street smart and understands the rights involved and concludes it is in their best interest to talk with and cooperate in the police investigation should be able to waive such rights without a lawyer or parent being present," O'Brien told the Plain-Dealer. "The proposed law would prevent that in a one-rule-fits-all statute."

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