COA affirms denial of juvenile’s motion for relief from child molesting adjudications

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A trial court properly denied a juvenile’s motion for relief from judgment on two delinquencies adjudications that he admitted to, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has affirmed.

In 2020, the state filed a delinquency petition alleging A.W. had committed what would be Level 3 felony child molesting if committed by an adult. The state later filed a second delinquency petition alleging A.W. had committed the same offense as a Level 4 felony.

The Elkhart Circuit Court held a consolidated factfinding hearing, where the state informed the trial court that the victim and the victim’s mother were not present due to “having communication problems” with the victim’s mother, who indicated “some concerns” about A.W.’s father. The state said the victim’s mother was fearful of retaliation, and A.W.’s counsel said the father had called the police on the mother due to threats she made against A.W.

After the state began its evidence, A.W.’s counsel requested a recess, then returned saying that A.W. “may want” to admit to the delinquency allegations. A.W. was sworn in and received an advisement of his rights, and he indicated his decision was voluntary.

At a subsequent dispositional hearing, the court encouraged A.W. and his father to ask questions and participate in the conversation on the best rehabilitative plan. But neither did, and while A.W. appeared before the court six times, he never indicated his original admissions were not voluntary.

In March 2022, after several failed attempts at less restrictive rehabilitation services, A.W. was made a ward of the Indiana Department of Correction.

A year later, A.W. filed a motion for relief from judgment pursuant to Indiana Trial Rules 60(B)(6) and (8), requesting that the trial court vacate the delinquency adjudications because his admissions had been motivated by “the perceived threat of a criminal charge against his father.” He later added a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Following a status hearing on the motion, the trial court issued an order denying A.W.’s T.R. 60(B)(6) motion for relief from judgment because A.W. “provided no supporting information by way of affidavit or the like within the record that contradicts A.W.’s sworn testimony that his admission was made without force, threat, or coercion.” The court also denied his T.R. 60(B)(8) motion, finding it was untimely, and no meritorious claim or defense had been identified.

A.W. appealed, arguing the trial court abused its discretion in denying his motions, but the Court of Appeals affirmed.

First as to his motion under Rule 60(B)(6), the COA pointed to T.D. v. State, 219 N.E.3d 719 (Ind. 2023), which held that “violations of the Juvenile Waiver Statute do not render a subsequent delinquency adjudication void; they render it voidable because the error can be cured if challenged.”

“Applying our supreme court’s holding in T.D. to the situation before us, we reach a similar result,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote in A.W.’s case. “A.W.’s allegations of purported deficiencies in admission proceedings and claims of involuntary admissions do not render a delinquency adjudication void, but merely voidable as the error can be cured when challenged. Accordingly, as A.W.’s adjudication cannot be held void, A.W. is foreclosed from proceeding under Indiana Trial Rule 60(B)(6).”

Turning next to A.W.’s argument under T.R. 60(B)(8), the COA confirmed that the claim was untimely.

“The ineffective assistance of counsel claim, which is grounded in A.W.’s perceived coerced admission, was available to him since his adjudication. He appeared in court many times after his disposition for rehabilitative placement modifications and never lodged a complaint about the circumstances of his admissions,” Riley wrote. “Furthermore, the State would be prejudiced if a new fact-finding hearing would be required: one witness was impaired in her memory due to her young age at the time of the first factfinding hearing, and the record is silent about the testimonial capacity of the second victim.”

Lastly, the appellate court determined the trial court was not required to conduct an evidentiary hearing on the motions.

“A.W. did not file any affidavits or other admissible evidence to support his contention that he had been coerced into his admissions, nor did he specify in his filings to the court what other pertinent evidence would be needed to adjudicate his claim,” Riley wrote.

Judges Terry Crone and Paul Mathias concurred in A.W. v. State of Indiana, 23A-JV-1609.

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