SCOTUS finds teacher’s testimony about child abuse doesn’t violate Confrontation Clause, reversing Ohio Supreme Court

The Supreme Court issued a decision today in Ohio v. Clark that reversed a decision of the Ohio Supreme Court regarding the admissibility of statements by a minor to his teacher as evidence of abuse by the defendant.  The Supreme Court found that admitting these statements did not violate the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, which provides defendants the right to confront their accusers in court, because the statements were not testimonial in nature.

The case involved a 3-year-old boy whose preschool teachers noticed marks and bruises on his body. When they questioned him about this, he identified Darius Clark, his mother's boyfriend, as his abuser. The trial court found that he was not competent to testify, but permitted his teachers to offer testimony on his out-of-court statements that identified the defendant. Clark was convicted and sentenced to 28 years in prison. Court News Ohio has a synopsis of the case and Ohio Supreme Court opinion from 2013, here.

In reversing his conviction, the Ohio Supreme Court used the "primary purpose test," (as described by the SCOTUS in Davis v. Washington) to determine whether or not statements are testimonial hearsay that violate the Confrontation Clause. The test involves an inquiry as to whether the statements were made with the primary purpose to assist with an "on-going emergency" or "to establish or prove past events potentially relevant to later criminal prosecution." Emergency statements are okay, statements to prove past events are testimonial.  The Ohio Supreme Court found that no emergency existed when the teachers questioned the child, and that their primary purpose was not to remove him from danger, but to investigate who had caused the injuries, which would be potentially relevant to a criminal prosecution. The court emphasized the mandatory reporter of abuse role of teachers as giving them a dual role in this type of inquiry. They held that the statements were testimonial and violated Clark's rights.

The Supreme Court rejected this reasoning and found the out-of-court statements were not testimonial. The Court analyzed whether the statements had the “primary purpose of creating an out-of-court substitute for trial testimony." Writing for the majority, Justice Alito found that the teacher's questioning was done in the context of an on-going emergency and focused on ending a threat. The Court emphasized the fact that the child was young, and "statements by very young children will rarely, if ever, implicate the Confrontation Clause." The Court also found the fact that the statements were made to teachers and not law enforcement officers relevant, rejecting an argument that a teacher's mandatory duty to report child abuse converts a discussion with a student to "a law enforcement mission aimed at gathering evidence for prosecution."

The decision to reverse the Ohio Supreme Court was unanimous. Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion. Interestingly, Justice Scalia penned a concurrence, which was joined by Justice Ginsburg, that agrees with the holding of the case, but skewers the majority on dicta relating to Confrontation Clause precedent. Justice Thomas filed a separate concurring opinion.

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