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A.M. v. State

Supreme Court of Indiana

November 12, 2019

A.M., Appellant (Defendant),
State of Indiana, Appellee (Plaintiff).

          Argued: February 28, 2019

          Appeal from the Kosciusko Superior Court 1, No. 43D01-1708-JD-292 The Honorable David C. Cates, Judge

         On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 18A-JV-618

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT Cara Schaefer Wieneke Joel C. Wieneke Wieneke Law Office, LLC Brooklyn, Indiana


          Marsha L. Levick Juvenile Law Center Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Curtis T. Hill, Jr. Attorney General Stephen R. Creason Angela N. Sanchez Lee M. Stoy, Jr. Deputy Attorneys General Indianapolis, Indiana


          Goff Justice.

          Chief Justice Rush and Justices David and Massa concur.

          Justice Slaughter concurs in judgment with separate opinion.

         More than half a century ago, the Supreme Court of the United States avowed that a child's right to counsel is neither "a formality" nor "a grudging gesture to a ritualistic requirement," but rather "the essence of justice." Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541, 561 (1966). Since then the settled law has been that children enjoy a constitutional due process right to the effective assistance of counsel during juvenile delinquency proceedings.

         The law remains unsettled, however, on the standard to evaluate claims from children alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. Here, A.M. asserts that his attorney rendered him ineffective assistance during a disposition-modification hearing. Reflecting the uncertainty in the law, A.M. and the State offer two competing standards for deciding the claim-one founded in the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel for a criminal proceeding and one founded in the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause.

         We hold today that a due process standard governs a child's claim that he received ineffective assistance in a disposition-modification hearing during his delinquency proceedings. In assessing these claims, we consider counsel's overall performance and determine whether that performance ensured the child received a fundamentally fair hearing resulting in a disposition serving his best interests. Given the facts of this case, A.M. has failed to demonstrate he received ineffective assistance of counsel, so we affirm the trial court.

         Factual and Procedural History

         Born in June 2002, A.M. has a long history with the juvenile justice system. At the age of ten, he had already committed three delinquent acts amounting to Class D felony battery with bodily injury if committed by an adult. He attended an alternative schooling program for several years, where he received special education and outpatient services for an emotional disability. During his time at the school, A.M. received multiple suspensions and several referrals to the juvenile court for fighting, violence against school staff, destruction of property, and possession of marijuana. Eventually, the school expelled him for "fail[ing] to comply," finding no relationship between his behavior and his disability and only slight progress in his outpatient program. Appellant's App. Vol. II, p. 128.

         In July 2017, A.M. and his friends approached a younger boy at the Kosciusko County fairgrounds, forcing him into an abandoned tent so that A.M. could fight him. A.M. beat the other boy and kicked him repeatedly in the head while he was down, leaving him with severe injuries requiring medical treatment. A.M. later threatened the boy with a text message stating, "You better not tell the cops about this." Id. at 15, 53-54.

         This incident ultimately led to a true finding of disorderly conduct, a Class B misdemeanor if committed by an adult. The juvenile court placed A.M. on supervised probation until the age of eighteen. But in the months that followed, he consistently failed to abide by the terms of his probation-leaving home without permission, threatening his family, skipping school, staying out past curfew, spending time with another juvenile delinquent, and missing his mental-health evaluations. Police also suspected his involvement in the burglary of a classmate's home.

         Because his actions posed a danger to others, and out of concern for A.M.'s safety and best interests, the probation department recommended his placement with the Department of Correction (DOC). In its modification report, the probation department also opined that placement in the DOC would ensure A.M. received the necessary education and services.

         During a modification hearing in February 2018, A.M.'s counsel, who had defended the juvenile against past delinquency allegations, negotiated with the prosecutor to redact certain allegations from the Petition to Modify, including allegations that A.M. committed unrelated acts constituting residential burglary and theft of a handgun if committed by an adult. A.M.'s counsel also prevented A.M. from having to admit allegations that he consumed alcohol on the school bus. A.M. did, however, admit to allegations that he battered a random boy at the bus stop and that he committed various status offenses. A.M.'s counsel also made the following statement to the court:

I am befuddled by the action of [A.M.]. I think he's a good kid. I think he's got a bright future ahead of him. He's smart, has some real opportunities, but the path he's going down is leading him to prison and he's just going to end up wallowing away there, probably spend most of his life there. You don't break into people's houses, you don't steal guns, don't follow the rules, get kicked out of school. You don't get an education and that's going to end up being his downfall. I think except for being kicked out of Gateway, he could have had an opportunity here. He could have been on home detention and shown everybody that he could do right. Instead he's going to go to the DOC, go to Logansport for an evaluation, do his six months, eight months or a year, as long he does right, and hopefully will come back and have learned a lesson. I have a lot of hope for [A.M.]. I hope he understands that what's going to happen here is not a punishment but rather a chance to get a leg up in life and try to do the right thing. I hope he does good, and when he comes back he can really grow and be a good kid.

Tr. pp. 6-7.

         In adopting the probation department's recommendation, the juvenile court committed fifteen-year-old A.M. to ...

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