WASHINGTON (AP) – Statements that children make to teachers about possible abuse can be used as evidence, even if the child does not testify in court, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Thursday.
The ruling is expected to make it easier for prosecutors to convict people accused of domestic violence. The justices said that defendants don’t have a constitutional right to cross-examine child accusers unless their statements to school officials were made for the primary purpose of creating evidence for prosecution.
The case involves Darius Clark, a Cleveland man convicted of beating his girlfriend’s 3-year-old son. Clark says the trial court denied him the constitutional right to confront his accuser when it said the boy didn’t have to testify, but still considered statements he made to preschool teachers describing abuse.
The Supreme Court reversed a lower court and upheld Clark’s conviction.
The court’s ruling resolves a split among lower courts about the role played by teachers, social workers and others who have a legal duty to report suspected child abuse that they notice in the course of their work. Ohio’s highest court had ruled that the duty to report abuse effectively turned teachers into agents of the state for law enforcement purposes, even though no police were initially involved.
Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said the fact that teachers have a legal duty to report child abuse suspicions to authorities does not transform a conversation between a concerned teacher and a student into a law enforcement mission aimed at gathering evidence for prosecution.
“Their questions and (the child’s) answers were primarily aimed at identifying and ending the threat,” Alito said. It was nothing like “formalized station-house questioning” or police interrogation.
Alito added that it is “extremely unlikely” that a 3-year-old child would intend his statements as a substitute for trial testimony.
The case began in 2010 when preschool teachers at a Head Start program asked the boy about bruises and welts they saw around his left eye. Asked who caused the injuries, the boy said “Dee,” referring to Clark.
Clark was later indicted, and the court allowed the teachers to testify at trial about statements the boy made identifying Clark. The boy was deemed “incompetent” to testify. Clark was convicted of felonious assault and child endangering.
A state appeals court overturned Clark’s conviction and the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed, ruling that teachers who are legally bound to report possible cases of abuse are in the same position as law enforcement officials when they question children.
Rejecting that view, Alito said the teachers’ “pressing concern was to protect (the child) and remove him from harm’s way.”
Forty-two states filed a brief supporting Ohio. They argue that excluding from evidence the statements children make to teachers, counselors and others who must report abuse will only protect abusers and impair the ability of states to protect children.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers submitted a brief arguing that children are susceptible to suggestion and giving unreliable testimony. The group said defendants have a constitutional right to cross examine witnesses, even when they are children.