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U.S. Supreme Court Rules that Child Hearsay Statements Not Subject to Confrontation Clause

On June 18, 2015, the United States Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Ohio v. Clark, 13-1352 (June 18, 2015), holding that a trial court’s admission of out-of-court statements that a three-year-old child made to his teacher did not violate the defendant’s right to cross-examine the child regarding the statements according to the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Known as the Confrontation Clause, this principle outlines a number of rights for defendants in criminal proceedings, including the right to confront their accusers. This rule has many complexities, particularly when it comes to the admission of hearsay, which is an out-of-court statement offered for the truth of the matter asserted.

In a 2004 case, the United States Supreme Court clarified the scope of this rule, holding that a defendant had the right to cross-examine an individual regarding out-of-court statements when those statements are testimonial in nature. According to the court, a statement is “testimonial when the circumstances indicate that there is no ongoing emergency and that the primary purpose of the interrogation is to establish or prove past events potentially relevant to later criminal prosecution.”

According to Florida Statute 90.803(23), a Florida court can permit a witness other than a child to testify regarding the type of sexual abuse that a child may have suffered based on statements that the child made to the witness. More specifically, the victim of an alleged sex crime against a minor 16 years of age or less is not required to testify at the defendant’s trial regarding the specific abuse allegations.

In order for the trial court to admit statements that the victim made to the witness, the trial court must conduct a hearing to determine whether the statement was made under reliable circumstances. If the court concludes that the circumstances in which the statement was made were reliable, the court can permit the witness who heard the statements to testify if the child is unavailable. A child witness can be deemed unavailable when the court concludes that requiring the child to testify during the proceedings would result in a substantial likelihood of severe mental or emotional harm to the child. If the court determines that the child is unavailable, the defendant must be provided with 10 days' notice prior to trial that the statements will be used during trial.

The facts of Ohio v. Clark arose on March 17, 2010, when a Cleveland preschool teacher observed injuries on a three-year-old student. The teacher asked the child about the injuries, and the child responded that his mother’s boyfriend had caused them. The teacher reported her concern that the child was a victim of child abuse to a child abuse hotline, and the defendant was arrested on suspicion of child abuse.

After the defendant objected to the admission of the teacher’s testimony regarding the statements that the child made, the trial court concluded that these procedures violated the defendant’s right to cross-examine the child according to the Confrontation Clause and barred admission of the teacher’s testimony. On appeal, the Ohio State Appellate Court and the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

In a unanimous opinion, the United States Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s findings, holding that the Confrontation Clause does not apply to statements made by children. The high court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court’s admission of the teacher’s testimony violated the defendant’s right to cross-examine the child regarding the statements. The Supreme Court based its ruling on the fact that the child’s statements were not made for the purpose of creating evidence to be used for prosecution. The court adopted a new general rule holding that statements made to individuals who are not law-enforcement representatives are not considered testimonial pursuant to the Confrontation Clause, precluding the defendant from invoking his or her right to cross-examine the declarant.

If you or someone you know has been accused of child abuse, The Hoffman Firm can help. We understand first-hand just how stressful and life-altering this kind of situation can be for you and your family. Our seasoned criminal defense staff can guide you through every step of the process and aggressively assert your rights.

We have helped many South Florida residents deal with legal accusations and ensure that their rights are being protected. Call us now at (305) 928-1669 or contact us online to set up a free confidential consultation.

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