Suit alleges juvenile detentions without probable cause in Hamilton County violate constitutional rights

The Children's Law Center of Covington filed a complaint against Hamilton County Juvenile Court officials in federal court this week, alleging that the court's practice of detaining children without first finding probable cause violates their constitutional rights. The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that the suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on Sunday on behalf of two minor plaintiffs who were detained in separate cases for multiple days without any finding of probable cause. One plaintiff, S.W.,was held in the detention center for 30 days without a probable cause hearing before ultimately having the case dismissed on the merits after a trial. The other, L.D., suffers from developmental delays and was held for 15 days before adjudication with no finding of probable cause. He was ultimately found delinquent on a lesser charge and sentenced to 6 months of house arrest.

According to the complaint, the Chief Deputy Clerk at the Juvenile Court issues arrest warrants for juveniles without making a finding of probable cause. The Enquirer explains subsequent practices of the County in these cases. After arrest, detention center officials assess and determine whether the child should be detained using factors such as "previous history, current emotional state, statements or interviews or whether there is a risk of self-harm or harm to others." They do not make a finding of probable cause. Ohio law requires that the juvenile have a hearing before a judge or magistrate within 72 hours of detention to determine whether they should remain in detention. This also does not involve a determination of probable cause. The case is then scheduled for another hearing, which must be held within 10 days of detention, or up to 14 for good cause, according to the complaint.

The suit specifically names as defendants Judge John Williams, Administrative Judge to the Hamilton County Juvenile Court; Dwayne Bowman, Superintendent of the Hamilton County Juvenile Court Youth Center; and the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners. The complaint acknowledges that the Ohio Rules of Juvenile Procedure do not specifically require a probable cause determination before an arrest or detention, but asserts that Ohio law requires that detention of a juvenile must be "constitutionally valid." The complaint alleges that the practice of arresting and detaining juveniles without a probable cause determination does not meet this requirement, as it violates both due process rights under the 14th Amendment and the Ohio Constitution, and the 4th Amendment's ban on warrantless searches and seizures.

Plaintiffs further allege that this practice disproportionately impacts African-American children, citing statistics from the Ohio Department of Youth Services and the U.S. Department of Justice that indicate that African-American children were both arrested and detained significantly more than white children in Hamilton County for the years of 2011-2013.

Plaintiffs are seeking to certify the case as a class action, with the class defined as "all children who have or will in the future be arrested on the basis of warrants and those who are or who have been detained at the Detention Center without a probable cause determination." They are requesting injunctive relief to change the practices of the Hamilton County Juvenile Court and are not seeking monetary damages.

The Enquirer reports that Plaintiffs' attorney, Rickell Howard, stated that these protections are provided for adults and should also be extended to children in the justice system. The Juvenile Court administrator stated that they were still reviewing the case and had no comment at this time.