Split COA voids juvenile’s delinquency adjudication, finds trial court failed to ensure minor knowingly waived rights

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A juvenile’s delinquency adjudication for auto theft has been voided after a split Court of Appeals of Indiana found a trial court failed to ensure the child knowingly and voluntarily waived his rights when he admitted to the offense.

In June 2020, the state filed a petition alleging T.D. was a delinquent child for committing acts constituting Level 6 felony auto theft and Class A misdemeanor theft if committed by an adult.

T.D. was detained, and his attorney moved for his release. In the motion, T.D.’s attorney stated he had spoken with T.D., who reported that he had “viewed [a] video on his rights” and had “no questions” about them. The attorney also stated that he had informed T.D.’s mother of “her son’s rights” and she had “no questions” about them.

The Lake Superior Court denied T.D.’s motion for release, finding he had “been advised of his rights, understands his rights, and has no questions regarding his rights.”

Then in July 2020, the trial court held an omnibus hearing at which T.D.’s attorney told the trial court that T.D. and the state had reached an oral agreement. The agreement provided that T.D. would admit to the auto theft allegation in exchange for the dismissal of the theft allegation, and disposition would be left to the discretion of the court.

The minor told the court he wanted to admit to the first count and argue disposition. His mother also agreed.

The court then asked T.D. about the offense, and he admitted he “took the car” without permission. The court did not discuss T.D.’s rights, reference a video or explain that T.D. was waiving his rights by admitting to auto theft.

Following the hearing, the trial court adjudicated T.D. as a delinquent child. In its order, the court found that T.D. and his mother “understand the admission waives those rights explained in the video.” The court then placed T.D. under the wardship of the Department of Correction.

A little over a year later, T.D. filed a motion for relief from judgment under Indiana Trial Rule 60(B)(6), alleging his admission “was not knowing, intelligent, or voluntary” because the trial court “made no mention or inquiries into the rights that T.D. was waiving.”

The trial court denied the dismissal motion, finding “the juvenile’s admission was voluntary and knowingly given with the adequate assistance of counsel.”

On appeal, T.D. contended the trial court erred in denying his motion for relief from judgment.

Looking at multiple cases, including A.S. v. State, 923 N.E.2d 486 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010), a split Court of Appeals panel agreed with T.D. and reversed in T.D. v. State of Indiana, 22A-JV-1016.

“For its part, the State doesn’t dispute that the trial court failed to ensure that T.D. knowingly and voluntarily waived his rights when he admitted to auto theft,” Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote for the majority, which included Judge Patricia Riley. “As already noted, at the omnibus hearing the trial court did not discuss T.D.’s rights, reference a video, or explain that T.D. was waiving his rights by admitting to auto theft. Instead, the State argues that a ‘juvenile court’s failure to follow the procedures outlined in the juvenile waiver statute is not the kind of infirmity that makes a judgment void.’

“… Although A.S. involved waiver of the right to counsel, which is not at issue here, that is immaterial,” Vaidik continued. “The juvenile waiver statute applies to ‘[a]ny rights guaranteed to a child under the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of Indiana, or any other law’— not just the right to counsel. Thus, under A.S., a trial court’s failure to ensure that a juvenile knowingly and voluntarily waives his rights when the juvenile admits to being a delinquent child means that the agreed delinquency adjudication is void under Trial Rule 60(B)(6).”

The majority thus concluded that the record showed T.D. met his burden of proving he didn’t freely and with informed consent enter into his admission.

Judge L. Mark Bailey dissented, although he did agree with the majority that the trial court did not adequately advise T.D. of his rights prior to accepting his admission, such that his admission was not knowing or voluntary. But, Bailey continued, that error did not render the judgment void.

“In his brief on appeal, T.D. does not cite any relevant case law or legal authority to support his position that a violation of Indiana Code Section 31-32-5-1 renders a judgment void,” Bailey wrote. “Rather, some of the cases T.D. cites tend to undermine his argument. Indeed, he cites cases for the proposition that ‘[s]trict compliance with the Statute is required for valid waivers with regard to juveniles,’ but none of those cases hold that a judgment is void for failure to comply with the relevant statute.

“… Second, while the majority is correct that an adult’s guilty plea must be vacated if it was not made knowingly or voluntarily, that does not render the judgment against the adult void,” Bailey continued. “… Should an adult plead guilty despite an unknowing or involuntary waiver of his or her rights, that guilty plea remains in full force and effect unless it is challenged. Thus, the judgment is merely voidable, not void. Similarly, here, at most, an admission following the unknowing or involuntary waiver of a juvenile’s rights results in a judgment that is merely voidable, not one that is void.”

Finally, Bailey opined it was “entirely possible” that had T.D. properly pleaded his claim under Trial Rule 60(B)(8), he would’ve been successful.

In a footnote, the majority addressed Bailey’s dissent.

“The dissent contends claimants such as T.D. may find relief from their involuntary admissions using Rule 60(B)(8). But as the dissent also notes, such an argument requires the showing of a meritorious defense,” Vaidik wrote. “This requirement would effectively shift the burden of proof to T.D. to prove he has a plausible defense to the underlying charges despite his involuntary admission.”

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