Affirming juvenile DOC placement, COA seeks effective counsel guidance

A 15-year-old who had multiple instances of violent rage and who could no longer be controlled by his parents was properly placed in the Department of Correction, an Indiana Court of Appeals panel found. But judges also used the case to ask the Indiana Supreme Court for guidance on measuring the effectiveness of counsel in similar juvenile cases.

A.M., now 16, was placed in the DOC in 2017 as the culmination of what the COA termed “a history of emotional and behavioral issues” since he was 8 years old. In 2017, he beat up a fellow teenager, sending him to the emergency room for treatment of cuts on his face, after which the Kosciusko Superior Court placed him on supervised probation with his mother and stepfather.

Less than two months later, A.M. was a suspect in a burglary at a classmate’s home and afterward was arrested for acts that would have been Class B misdemeanor battery if committed by an adult stemming from a fight at a bus stop. He also was expelled from school, was suspected of consuming alcohol and was wanted by police for theft of a firearm, prompting the state to successfully modify his placement to the DOC.

In his appeal, A.M. argued the trial court abused its discretion in modifying his probationary placement and that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. The COA panel rejected both arguments but used A.M.’s case to seek Supreme Court guidance on similar juvenile ineffective assistance of counsel claims.

In this case, A.M.’s counsel said Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. (1984), should apply, while the state argued In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, (1967) should apply.

“Indiana courts have not squarely addressed whether the two-pronged Strickland test or the due process test is the proper test to be used in analyzing the effectiveness of juvenile’s counsel during the various phases of delinquency proceedings, and we encourage our supreme court to provide guidance in this area,” Judge Terry Crone wrote for the panel Monday in A.M. v. State of Indiana, 18A-JV-618.

However, the panel made clear that given the facts of this case, A.M. did not receive ineffective assistance of counsel in either event.

“A.M. claims that counsel did nothing to promote his interests, and thus he essentially received no assistance from counsel. We disagree,” Crone wrote. “The record shows that counsel negotiated a stipulation with the State whereby three of the allegations in support of modification were redacted; these allegations were that A.M. possessed an alcoholic beverage, consumed an alcoholic beverage on a school bus, and committed burglary.

“These alleged acts were not only violations of A.M.’s supervised probation rules but also criminal conduct that could have resulted in additional true findings. As such, the negotiation of the stipulation was neither insignificant nor against A.M.’s best interest. In this respect, we note that even under the Strickland test, this evidence supports a finding of effective, not deficient, performance.”

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