Video hearings did not result in unfair or harmful juvenile proceedings

Two juveniles will remain wards of the Indiana Department of Correction after the Indiana Supreme Court found that while their participation in their modification hearings through Skype violated an administrative rule, it did not cause a fundamental error.

The juveniles, C.S. Jr., and Z.T., both appealed, separately, the Elkhart Circuit Court’s order which made them wards of the DOC. They both argued, in part, that the trial court violated Indiana Administrative Rule 14 when it held their hearings via videoconference when each defendant had a right to be physically present. Additionally, Z.T. argued he was denied his due process rights.

In affirming the trial court, the Indiana Court of Appeals found the Skype participation was acceptable. The juveniles were given notice of the modification hearing and had the opportunity to be heard, which, the appellate panel held, was all that was required by statute.

The panel ruling on Z.T.’s case went further and concluded Rule 14 did not apply to the juvenile.

The cases were consolidated at the Indiana Supreme Court, with a majority of the justices concluding C.S. Jr., and Z.T. failed to show their remote participation resulted in fundamental error.

The entire court concluded Indiana Administrative Rule 14(B) does apply to the use of telephones and audiovisual telecommunication devices in juvenile disposition-modification hearings. Likewise, they all found the trial court erred when it allowed C.S. Jr., and Z.T. to appear and participate in their hearings through Skype. The summaries of the hearings did not indicate that the juveniles agreed to participate remotely, the justices said, and the trial court did not make findings of good cause.

However, Justice Steven David dissented when the majority ruled the trial court’s noncompliance with the rule did not make a fair hearing impossible or presented a substantial potential for harm.

The juveniles had argued that remote participation is more difficult, lessens the reformative impact of the contact with the juvenile courts and undermines trust in the justice system. But the majority was unconvinced.

“While some nuances may be lost during the course of some video-conference hearings, we cannot agree that a properly conducted juvenile hearing with remote participants necessarily results in the harms the Juveniles predict,” Justice Christopher Goff wrote for the majority. “In some cases, a juvenile may benefit more from sticking closely to a routine built for rehabilitation and appearing at a hearing remotely rather than by being taken out of his or her rehabilitative setting and routine to be transported to a hearing.”

But in his one paragraph dissent, David asserted the failure of the trial court to follow Administrative Rule 14(B) resulted in a fundamental error. Accordingly, he would have reserved and remanded the case for further proceedings.

The court did offer guidance to courts and parties facing remote hearings in the future. In particular, the court noted trial courts will need to consider the unique aspects of the juvenile justice system.

“…(J)uvenile courts are generally concerned with acting in the child’s best interest,” Goff wrote, citing to In re K.G., 808 N.E.2d 631, 636 (Ind. 2004). “This concern about the child’s best interests can extend to the way the juvenile court addresses and interacts with the child. Thus, the child’s best interests will generally constitute a relevant factor under Rule 14(B)(2)(f) in a juvenile court’s good-cause determination.”

The cases are C.S., Jr., v. State of Indiana, 19S-JV-136, and Z.T. v. State of Indiana, 19S-JV-137.

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