Oral Argument Preview: Must a Social Worker Advise an Incarcerated Defendant of his Rights Pursuant to Miranda? State of Ohio v. Demetrius Jackson.

On February 13, 2018, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in State of Ohio v. Demetrius Jackson, 2017-0145. At issue in this case is whether a suspect’s rights have been violated when he is questioned, without being informed of his Miranda rights, by a children’s services social worker who must report her findings to a law enforcement agency.

Case Background

Jackson was arrested on August 5, 2015, for raping a fourteen-year-old girl. Unable to make bail, Jackson remained incarcerated from his arrest date through sentencing. After his arrest, Jackson was advised of his Miranda rights by a Cleveland Police detective. While being held in the Cuyahoga County Jail, Jackson was interviewed by a social worker from the Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services. The social worker advised Jackson of the allegations against him, that he did not have to speak with her, and that anything he said could be used by the courts, but did not give him the actual Miranda warnings. Jackson then admitted to having what he claimed was consensual sex with the minor girl, who he thought was 18.

At a bench trial before Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Janet Burnside, over Jackson’s objection, the judge allowed the social worker to testify as to Jackson’s statements. Jackson was convicted of rape and related offenses, and sentenced to eleven years in prison.

In a split decision written by Judge Eileen A. Gallagher and joined by Judge Mary Boyle, the Eighth District Court of Appeals reversed Jackson’s conviction, holding that the social worker was acting as an agent of law enforcement, had conducted a custodial interrogation, and should have advised Jackson of his Miranda rights. Judge Sean Gallagher dissented.

Votes to Accept the Case

Yes: Chief Justice O’Connor, and Justices O’Donnell, Kennedy, French, O’Neill, Fischer, and DeWine.

No: There were no dissenters.

Key Precedent

Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution (“No person shall… be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself…”)

Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution (“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him…and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”)

R.C. 2901(A)(11) (Definition of “law enforcement officer”)

R.C. 2151.421 Reporting Child Abuse or Neglect

(G) (“the public children services agency shall investigate . . . each report of child abuse or child neglect . . . . The investigation shall be made in cooperation with the law enforcement agency . . . . A representative of the public children services agency shall, at the time of initial contact with the person subject to the investigation, inform the person of the specific complaints or allegations made against the person. The information shall be given in a manner that is consistent with division (I)(1) of this section and protects the rights of the person making the report under this section. . . . The public children services agency shall submit a report of its investigation, in writing, to the law enforcement agency.”)

Mathis v. United States, 391 U.S. 1(1968) (Defendant was convicted through the testimony of an IRS agent, attained while the defendant was incarcerated for another crime. The Court held that despite the IRS agent questioning the defendant on a matter unrelated to his being in custody, the obligations of Miranda still remained.)

Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966) (“[T]he prosecution may not use statements, whether exculpatory or inculpatory, stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination. By custodial interrogation, we mean questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way. As for the procedural safeguards to be employed, unless other fully effective means are devised to inform accused persons of their right of silence and to assure a continuous opportunity to exercise it, the following measures are required. Prior to any questioning, the person must be warned that he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed.”)

State v. Bolan, 27 Ohio St.2d 15 (1971) (“[T]he duty of giving ‘Miranda warnings’ is limited to employees of government agencies whose function is to enforce law, or to those acting for such law enforcement agencies by direction of the agencies.”)

State v. Watson, 28 Ohio St.2d 15 (1971) (Defendant challenged the trial court’s refusal to suppress in-custody statements to a newspaper reporter. “The Miranda requirements do not apply when admissions otherwise admissible are given to persons who are not officers of the law or their agents. . . . Although defendant was in custody, the statement in question was not the result of ‘questioning initiated by law enforcement officers.’ Therefore, it is of no consequence that the statement might have been influenced by earlier statements made by defendant to the police.”)

Estelle v. Smith, 101 S.Ct. 1866 (1981) (Defendant held in custody was compelled by the court to submit to a ‘mental status examination’ performed by a court-appointed psychiatrist. The Court concluded that, “when faced while in custody with a court-ordered psychiatric inquiry, [defendant]’s statements . . . were not ‘given freely and voluntarily without any compelling influences’ and, as such, could be used . . . only if [defendant] had been apprised of his rights and had knowingly decided to waive them.”)

State v. Roberts, 32 Ohio St.3d 225 (1987) (“[S]tatements by an in-custody probationer to his probation officer are inadmissible in a subsequent criminal trial, where prior to questioning, the probation officer failed to advise the probationer of his Miranda rights as required by Section 10, Article I of the Ohio Constitution and by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”)

Ohio v. Clark, 135 S.Ct. 2173 (2015) (“[M]andatory reporting statutes alone cannot convert a conversation between a concerned teacher and her student into a law enforcement mission aimed primarily at gathering evidence for a prosecution.”)

State’s Argument

Miranda applies only to law enforcement and its agents. Social workers are not statutorily defined as law enforcement, and are not transformed into law enforcement by their duty to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement. Interviews by social workers like the one that took place here serve important health and safety interests of child victims. In this case, specifically, it helped to identify that the child had been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease.

The Supreme Court of Ohio has not addressed the issue of whether social workers are agents of law enforcement for Fifth and Sixth Amendment purposes, and the Ohio appeals courts have reached conflicting conclusions on this issue. This Court should reject the bright-line rule established by the Eighth District that any interview by a public children’s services agency social worker makes the social worker an agent of law enforcement because of the duty to share the information later with law enforcement.

Of the states that have considered this issue, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Texas consider a variety of factors before deeming a social worker an agent under the constraints of Miranda. Maine, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania use a bright-line rule like that adopted by the Eighth District Court of Appeals. The state urges the court to adopt the multi-factor approach and reject the bright-line rule.

A social worker’s obligation to inform law enforcement of suspected child abuse does not categorically change all social workers into agents of law enforcement. Notably, the United States Supreme Court, in Ohio v. Clark, unanimously rejected the argument in the Sixth Amendment context, that a statutory duty to report suspected abuse to police transforms a private citizen (there, a teacher) into a law enforcement agent. The fact that a prosecution later resulted made no difference.

Miranda is meant to protect citizens against “an interrogation environment”—an environment which is entirely absent from the present case. Interviews by social workers do not share the coercive environment of concern in Miranda. Indeed, Jackson testified that he did not feel compelled in making the statements to the social worker.

The social worker in this case gave Jackson all the advisements that were required. No police officer was present for this questioning. There is no evidence that this interview was part of a broader police investigation. There is no evidence that Jackson refused to speak with the social worker or felt compelled to do so, or asserted any constitutional rights. Jackson voluntarily made statements to a non-law enforcement person. No Fifth or Sixth Amendment rights were implicated or violated.

Jackson’s Argument

The purpose of the Miranda warnings is to protect an individual against self-incrimination in the coercive environment of custodial interrogation. That is when procedural safeguards must be employed to protect the privilege.

The state’s proposed proposition of law in this case presents the issue too broadly. The issue is only whether the social worker in this case was acting as an agent of law enforcement, not whether all social workers do.

The social worker who questioned Jackson in this case was a member of a special unit of a state agency which collaborates with and works as a team with law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of crimes against minor children. The U.S. Supreme Court has already extended the Miranda requirements to an IRS agent conducting a routine tax examination, and to a court-appointed psychiatrist appointed to perform an evaluation of the defendant. The Supreme Court of Ohio has held probation officers must give Miranda warnings to in-custody probationers.

Social workers employed by children services’ agencies are employees of the state and are, therefore, “state actors” under Miranda. In those jurisdictions that require social worker/investigators employed by state agencies to give Miranda warnings, courts emphasize that social workers investigate crimes against children on behalf of the state. The interests of the accused are not in line with the investigating social worker. Social workers are required by law to report any potential wrongdoing. And social workers often work alongside police, leading to criminal prosecutions. Being is custody is often key to a court’s analysis.

Courts often do not find Miranda violations when the defendant makes statements to a social worker outside of confinement. But here, when Jackson made the statements, it is undisputed that he was in custody.

The social worker with whom Jackson spoke was employed by the county; social workers often interview alleged sex-offenders side-by-side with police officers. This social worker exclusively interviews alleged sex-offenders, thus she likely possesses interrogation skills equal to or greater than a member of law enforcement.

Jackson denies that he voluntarily spoke with the social worker. Rather, he was removed from his jail cell and brought to a special interview room at the request of the social worker. And without counsel present, he was subjected to questioning which, under R.C. 2151.421, “shall be made in cooperation with [a] law enforcement agency”.

Finally, Jackson challenges the State’s depiction of the split among the courts of appeal on this issue. This case was not accepted on conflict certification; none was even requested. Furthermore, those cases are factually distinguishable.

State’s Proposed Proposition of Law

A social worker’s duty to cooperate and share information with law enforcement does not render the social worker an agent of law enforcement under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, where the social worker does not act at the direction, control, or behest of law enforcement.

Student Contributor: Mark Tassone