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Justices weigh waiver of juvenile right to attend delinquency hearings

May 31, 2018

Juveniles involved in delinquency proceedings have a constitutional right to be present at the fact-finding hearings against them. But can that right be waived? And if so, how?

The Indiana Supreme Court wrestled with those questions Thursday morning when it heard oral argument in R.R. v. State of Indiana, 18S-JV-00230. The case involves delinquency proceedings against 17-year-old R.R., who failed to appear for a combined fact-finding hearing in February 2017.

At the time of the hearing — which had been continued from January — R.R.’s mother told the court that her son had taken off and had not contacted her about his whereabouts. R.R.’s counsel objected to holding the hearing if the teen was not there, but the Lawrence Circuit Court allowed the hearing to proceed because no one knew where R.R. was.

The court then entered true findings against R.R. for auto theft and false informing, and a divided panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed his adjudications in January. Judge Terry Crone noted that R.R. was present when the hearing was originally scheduled, and he pointed to testimony from his mother, who said R.R. “took off” when she tried to take him to a court appointment a week before the hearing. Given those facts, the majority concluded R.R.’s absence was knowing and voluntary, so he waived his right to be present.

But Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik dissented, writing separately that Indiana Code section 31-32-5-1 sets out only three ways juveniles can waive their constitutional rights: through their attorneys, through their parents, or on their own if the waiver is knowing and voluntary and the child is emancipated. Those factors were not present in R.R.’s case, Vaidik said, so he could not have been found to have waived his right to be present at the fact-finding hearing.

Cara Wieneke, R.R.’s counsel, presented a similar argument before the justices on Thursday, but her main argument was broader: under Wieneke’s theory, juveniles can never waive their right to be present at fact-finding hearings.

Wieneke’s argument was based on the notion that the juvenile justice system is inherently different from the adult system because the juvenile system is designed to rehabilitate wayward children and put them back on track. That rehabilitation cannot occur if a juvenile defendant is not present to hear testimony from their accusers and witnesses, Wieneke said.

But Andrew Kobe, counsel for the state, told the justices that the ability to waive the right to be present is implied within I.C. 31-32-5-1, known as the Juvenile Waiver Statute. That statute implies that juveniles will be present at their hearings, Kobe said, so their absence serves as a waiver by conduct.

Kobe also maintained that it would not make sense for juveniles to be unable to waive their right to be present, yet still be able to waive other constitutional rights, such as the right to counsel. But faced with a question along similar lines from Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, Wieneke returned to her point about the rehabilitative nature of juvenile justice. Contrasting the right to a jury trial — which she said is merely a matter of innocence or guilt — Wieneke said the right to be present affords juveniles the opportunity to understand why their conduct was wrong and to create a plan for correcting that conduct.

Aside from overarching constitutional questions, Thursday’s argument also dealt with whether the evidence in R.R.’s specific case was sufficient to prove that he knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to be present at the fact-finding hearing. Justice Steven David wrestled with that question, noting the continuance of the hearing to a new date and time complicated that analysis.

Wieneke agreed, pointing to the fact that the record does not reflect that R.R. knew of the new hearing date. But Kobe countered that there was circumstantial evidence of the teenager’s intent not to attend, including the fact that he “took off” from his mom when she tried to take him to a court-related appointment shortly before the fact-finding hearing.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush also questioned Wieneke about why she didn’t build her case around a seemingly simpler argument: that the requirements of the Juvenile Waiver Statute weren’t met. In response, Wieneke once again returned to her point about the difference between the adult and juvenile justice systems, arguing that difference means R.R. could not have waived his right in the first place.

However, if the court finds that juveniles can waive their right to be present, then the terms of the statute must apply, Wieneke said. But Kobe maintained that when a juvenile waives his right to be present through the act of failing to appear, the statute doesn’t apply.

The full argument can be viewed here.

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