In my 23-year career as a lawyer no case has had more impact on the criminal justice system than the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Crawford v. Washington. That case radically revamped the analysis that applies for confrontation clause issues, holding that “testimonial” statements by people who don’t testify at trial are not admissible unless the prosecution establishes both unavailability and a prior opportunity to cross-examine. More than 10 year after Crawford, courts are still struggling with the meaning of the key term “testimonial.” In one recent case the Court of Appeals had to decide whether DMV records are testimonial under the new Crawford analysis.
On June 18th the U.S. Supreme Court decided Ohio v. Clark, 576 U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2173 (2015), holding that a child abuse victim’s statements to his preschool teachers were non-testimonial under the Crawford confrontation clause analysis. As the first Crawford case addressing statements by a child victim, Clark is an important decision for child abuse prosecutions. Also, because it’s the Court’s first case assessing the testimonial nature of statements made to persons other than the police or their agents, it has broader significance for the Crawford analysis.
In early October the Supreme Court granted certiorari in an Ohio case, State v. Clark, 999 N.E.2d 592 (Ohio 2013), cert. granted __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 43 (2014), that will require it to decide two questions. First, whether a person’s obligation to report suspected child abuse makes the person an agent of law enforcement for purposes of the confrontation clause. And second, whether a child’s out-of-court statements to a teacher in response to the teacher’s concerns about potential child abuse qualify as “testimonial” statements. The case is important for a number of reasons. One is that like Ohio, North Carolina has a mandatory child abuse reporting statute. G.S. 7B-301. North Carolina’s statute is incredibly broad—it applies to everyone, not just teachers and doctors but also to family members, neighbors, and friends. Id. (“[a]ny person or institution”). Thus, an answer to the first question could have significant impact in North Carolina. The case also is important because Crawford has raised difficult questions in child abuse prosecutions about the testimonial nature of children’s statements to a host of people, including teachers, nurses, doctors, and social workers. Clark is the Court’s first Crawford case involving child abuse and many hope that its decision will provide answers to those questions.