Are schoolteachers also law enforcement? The question may seem absurd at first, but a strange case heard in the Supreme Court on Monday has the justices debating just that question … and the answer might be ‘yes.’
The case, Ohio v. Clark, arises from a 2010 criminal incident in Cleveland, Ohio. A 3-year-old preschooler, identified only by the initials L.P., was asked by his teacher, Ramona Whitley, why his left eye was bloodied. He replied by placing the blame with his mother’s boyfriend, Darius Clark. Whitley reported the alleged abuse, leading to Clark’s subsequent arrest and conviction on felony assault and child endangerment charges.
Clark, who faces nearly 30 years in prison, sued to have his conviction overturned on the grounds that it was based on inadmissible testimony. L.P. was found to be too young to testify in court, so his statements to Whitley and another teacher were key pieces of evidence for the conviction. Those statements, Clark argues, should be inadmissible due to the Sixth Amendment right to confront one’s accusers.
Current Supreme Court precedent holds that any evidence of a “testimonial” nature (that is, statements made to law enforcement conducting an investigation) are inadmissible at trial unless the defense is given the opportunity for cross-examination. Whitley, Clark’s attorneys say, should be considered an agent of law enforcement rather than an ordinary witness. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed, overturning Clark’s conviction, which led to the case reaching the Supreme Court.
While it may seem strange to classify teachers as law enforcement agents, there are reasons to believe that to be the case. Ohio has a law requiring teachers to report evidence of child abuse. Therefore, Clark’s attorneys say that when Whitley asked L.P. why his eye was bloody, she was actually gathering evidence just as police would
Such mandatory-reporting laws for teachers exist in all 50 states, meaning that the Supreme Court’s ruling will have truly national implications. Ohio, backed by the federal government and over 40 other states, has argued that another ruling in Clark’s favor could be devastating to the prosecution of child abuse cases throughout the country, because so many child abuse cases are discovered thanks to the intervention of teachers and daycare workers.
In some states, the stakes are even higher, because mandatory reporting for child abuse extends to all adults. That means, in theory, that any adult who questions a child about possible abuse could be deemed an agent of law enforcement, whose testimony can’t be admitted unless the child is subjected to cross-examination.
The justice most likely to back Clark’s argument is probably Antonin Scalia, who authored the Court’s decision in Crawford v. Washington which significantly expanded the rights of defendants to demand a cross-examination of testimony. Scalia has used that opinion and others to take a strict originalist approach on the Sixth Amendment, arguing that there should be few exceptions to the prohibition on hearsay even when testimony is considered very reliable.
“Dispensing with confrontation because testimony is obviously reliable is akin to dispensing with jury trial because a defendant is obviously guilty,” Scalia wrote in Crawford.
During Monday’s oral arguments, however, some justices were skeptical of the argument that teachers should be classified as law enforcement just because of mandatory reporting rules. Justice Samuel Alito suggested that when teachers ask about abuse, they are primarily concerned with improving the child’s well-being, rather than gathering evidence.
“The teacher isn’t saying anything about gathering evidence for a criminal prosecution,” Alito said. “The teacher is concerned about the safety of this child, period.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg raised similar concerns, saying that a teacher asking about abuse would be primarily concerned with a child’s immediate safety rather than the collection of evidence to report.
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