Supreme Court: What Children Tell Teachers Counts as Evidence in Child Abuse Cases

In another key ruling issued by the Supreme Court this year, the justices unanimously agreed that what children tell their teachers can be used as evidence in child abuse cases.
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As our Delray Beach and Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers know, the case made its way to the Supreme Court after a man was convicted of beating his girlfriend’s son; the defendant later argued that he was denied his right to confront his accuser because the trial court didn’t make the boy testify in court.

Despite not making him testify in court, statements the boy had made to his preschool teacher, allegedly describing the abuse, were permitted as evidence. As our lawyers know, and as the defendant’s lawyers argued, this raised a serious 6th Amendment issue.

Let’s first clear up what we mean by “6th Amendment issue.” A part of the Bill of Rights, the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution contains what is known as the “confrontation clause,” language that states that “in criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” This right was codified, in part, to reduce the likelihood that people will make false accusations; if you know you’re going to have to face the person against whom you are making a false accusation, you’re probably less likely to do so. Nowadays, the right to confront one’s accuser generally takes the form of a defense attorney being able to cross-examine someone who has delivered accusatory testimony.

The problem in Ohio v. Clark, as our Delray Beach and Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers at the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert know, was that while the court accepted the young boy’s words as evidence, they did not make him testify. Had he testified, he would have been subjected to cross-examination by the defense attorney; because he did not have to testify, and his words came from second-hand sources (his teachers), the defendant (and his attorneys) did not have the chance to question (“confront”) the accuser.

To be sure, our Delray Beach and Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers in no way, shape or form condone child abuse or neglect of any type. That said, we also support a defendant’s right to a competent and complete legal defense, aided by all of the rights afforded to us by the Bill of Rights. Child psychologists, educators and child welfare-focused government organizations alike have made the point that child abuse claims made by children aren’t always what they seem. Because of this, it’s important that the trial court does everything in its power to verify the source of the accusations, even if that source is the allegedly abused child.

The Supreme Court ruled today that just because teachers have a legal responsibility to report suspected child abuse to authorities doesn’t change the conversation between a child and a concerned teacher into a full-fledged law enforcement-directed fact-finding mission; as such, viewing the conversations between a teacher and a child as a sneaky substitute for in-court testimony is inaccurate. In this case, concerned teachers asked the boy in question about welts and bruises around his eye; the boy responded that the defendant (who went on to be convicted of felonious assault and child endangering) had caused the bruises. The Court viewed the comments made by boy to the teacher as separate from any type of official investigation, thereby excusing the boy from required testimony; the boy was also deemed “incompetent” to testify.

If you have any questions about this or any other legal issue, or if you’ve been arrested for or charged with a crime in Palm Beach, Broward and/or Miami-Dade County, please contact our Delray Beach and Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers at Leifert & Leifert by calling 1-888-5-DEFEND (1-888-533-3363). We look forward to assisting you.

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