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In Re Spears

Status: Closed (Judgment)
Last Update: April 18, 2007

What's at Stake

Defending juveniles’ pre-trial right to counsel in Ohio.

The ACLU created “Know Your Rights” cards educate youth in Ohio about their rights in court.
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> Ohio Juvenile Justice Overview

> A Demographic Profile of Children in the Ohio Juvenile Justice System
>J.P. v. Taft: Access to the Courts for Incarcerated Minors
>Other Efforts to Ensure Adequate Access to Counsel for Ohio Youth

In March 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, ACLU National, The Children’s Law Center and the Ohio Public Defender’s Office filed a petition with the Ohio Supreme Court that called for the Court to adopt a rule making it much more difficult for children charged with a crime to waive counsel.

As many as 80 percent of children charged with criminal wrongdoing in some Ohio juvenile courts are not represented by counsel. A growing number of cases show that youths who are not represented by an attorney are more likely to enter in guilty pleas even when they may have viable defenses or may be innocent. Many Ohio youths also have barriers to understanding the charges that they may face. In Ohio, almost 75% of incarcerated youths need mental health services and nearly half of those incarcerated at Ohio Department of Youth Services (ODYS) facilities need special educational services.

Currently, Ohio law allows juveniles to waive their right to legal counsel
before they have even met with an attorney to discuss the legal implications of
their situation. The petition specifically requested that the court require every child to consult with an attorney prior to waiving the right to counsel. The groups also asked the court to revisit the right to counsel with minors throughout their court proceedings.

The state’s high court agreed to consider this issue in the case of Corey Spears, who was 13 years old when he appeared in juvenile court. Corey waived his right to an attorney but the court failed to ensure that he understood what rights he was giving up.

The In Re: Spears case was heard by the Supreme Court of Ohio in April of 2007 and decided in September of that year. The Court held that Spears’s waiver of counsel was invalid because his rights had not been adequately explained to him. The Court affirmed that the appointment of counsel is mandatory in all cases where a juvenile does not have a parent or guardian available for advice, and allows juveniles to waive counsel only if the decision is made voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently. The Court held that in determining whether a juvenile’s waiver of counsel has met these standards, judges must engage the juvenile in a meaningful dialogue and consider the juvenile’s unique circumstances, including age, intelligence, education level, life experience, and nature of complexity of the charges against the juvenile.

> Read the Supreme Court of Ohio’s summary of its decision (off-site)
> Read the Court’s decision in the case (off-site PDF)

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