Marianna Bettman

Marianna Bettman

The Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services (CCDCFS) received a referral reporting that 13-year-old M.H. had engaged in sexual activity with 12-year-old J.M. Esther Bradley, a child-protection specialist with CCDCFS (and who had once been a police detective) interviewed J.M. and advised J.M.’s mother to file a police report. 

Bradley opened an investigation into this incident and left a letter at M.H.’s mother’s residence setting a time and place for Bradley to interview M.H. Although M.H.’s mother was aware of the allegations against her son, M.H.’s mother claimed that neither the letter nor Bradley informed her that M.H. was a suspect in this investigation, nor did M.H.’s mother know she could decline the interview with her son and Bradley.

M.H.’s mother brought M.H. to CCDCFS to be questioned. Bradley had told M.H.’s mother that this would be a private interview and that she would not be allowed to be present. M.H. was taken to a closed-door room by Bradley. M.H.’s mother was left in a waiting room. Bradley did not advise M.H. of his Miranda rights before the interview. During the interview, M.H. admitted that he had engaged in sexual activity with J.M. Bradley prepared a report for the police.

The police detective assigned to the case filed a juvenile delinquency complaint alleging that M.H. had committed two counts of rape and two counts of gross sexual imposition. M.H. moved to suppress the statement he had made to Bradley on the grounds that it was involuntary, that he had not been advised of or waived his Miranda rights, and that his due process rights had been violated. 

The juvenile court judge granted M.H.’s motion to suppress, finding that his statement had been obtained in violation of his due process rights which protect against involuntary statements. The Cleveland appeals court reversed the trial court judge. The admissibility of M.H.’s statement to Bradley is what is at issue in this Ohio Supreme Court case.  

Part of the answer to this question came from an earlier Ohio Supreme Court decision. It’s pretty much common knowledge by now that suspects must be given Miranda warnings to guard against coerced confessions.  What is less well known is that it isn’t just police officers who must Mirandize suspects, but also those acting as agents for the police. But the Ohio high court had already decided in an earlier case that a social worker employed by CCDCFS was not acting as an agent for the police in questioning a sex abuse suspect, and therefore did not have to give Miranda warnings to that suspect (an adult in that case, but the holding applied to this situation as well). So, the Miranda issue wasn’t before the Court here. But the issue remained whether the admission of M.H.’s statement to Bradley violated M.H.’s due process rights. 

In a 4-3 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court held that M.H.’s due process rights were not violated here. Justice Sharon Kennedy wrote the lead opinion for a fractured court, finding that M.H.’s statement to Bradley was not coerced. Even if Bradley’s position triggered due process protections in interviewing M.H., Kennedy finds any incriminating statements M.H. made were not involuntary in the constitutional sense. Looking at the totality of the circumstances in the case, the record shows that neither M.H. nor his mother objected to the questioning or the circumstances surrounding it. M.H. answered all questions asked of him. No threats were made and there was no evidence of mistreatment of M.H. Ultimately, Kennedy’s opinion finds M.H. failed to show that the interview offended notions of fundamental fairness. 

Writing for the dissenters, Justice Melody Stewart strongly disagreed that M.H.’s due process rights were not violated. If a defendant challenges the voluntariness of a confession, the burden is on the state to establish that the confession was voluntarily made, using a totality of the circumstances test. Factors to be considered are the “age, mentality, and prior criminal experience of the accused; the length, intensity, and frequency of [the] interrogation; the existence of physical deprivation or mistreatment; and the existence of [a] threat or inducement.” This is especially true where juveniles are concerned.

Here, the dissent finds that based on the totality of the circumstances, M.H.’s statements to Bradley were involuntary. There is nothing in the record to show that Bradley or anyone else made sure that M.H. knew he even had rights, let alone that he understood them. In fact, Stewart observes, at no point during the questioning did Bradley ever explain to M.H. why he was there. She certainly never told him he didn’t have to speak with her. She didn’t think she had to. To Stewart, the fact that M.H. was never informed of his rights and was only 13 is evidence that M.H. (not to mention his mother) did not know or understand the rights he was giving up when he answered Bradley’s questions. This weighs against voluntariness and leads the dissent to conclude M.H.’s statements to Bradley were not voluntarily made. 

The dissent also concludes that the setting of the interrogation and the events leading up to it resulted in an inherently coercive environment for a 13-year-old. There was no way M.H. would have felt free not to answer Bradley’s questions, or to get up and leave. The questioning occurred in a government building with police officers present. M.H. had never met Bradley before, and he was immediately separated from his mother when he arrived. He was taken to a secluded room to be questioned behind closed doors by a total stranger. No adult was present to look out for his interests.

“It must be noted that although Bradley’s job title at CCDCFS was child-protection specialist and she was not an employee of a law enforcement agency, both the interrogation atmosphere and Bradley’s structuring of her questions are strikingly similar to the type of police interrogation practices that the Supreme Court found inherently coercive in Miranda,” Stewart wrote. There was just no way M.H. would have thought he could leave or not answer Bradley’s questions. So, to Stewart, this case implicates the Due Process Clause’s protections against coercive state action.  Under the totality of the circumstances, statements made by M.H. during the interrogation were involuntary and should have been suppressed.

Count me with the dissenters.  This kid got a raw deal.

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