Merit Decision: No Plain Error Shown in Juvenile Human Trafficking Case. State v. Martin.
“…Martin cannot prevail on the merits of her safe-harbor claim because she cannot show that plain error occurred in the juvenile court.”
Justice French, majority opinion
“The record here demonstrates plain error in that the juvenile court deviated from the statute because it never considered or addressed whether Martin’s victimization by Kerney related to these crimes (which it did).”
Justice O’Donnell, dissent
On August 14, 2018, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in State v. Martin, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-3226. In a 6-1 opinion authored by Justice French, the Court held that juvenile courts are required to appoint a guardian ad litem for juveniles who are reasonably believed to be human-trafficking victims charged with offenses related to that victimization. But the failure to do so in the absence of an objection, as was the case here, means plain error review, which standard Martin did not meet in this case. Judge Michael Hall, sitting for the recused Justice O’Neill, joined the majority opinion. Chief Justice O’Connor and Justice Kennedy concurred in judgment only. Justice O’Donnell dissented. The case was argued January 23, 2018.
Alexis Martin, then 15, and three adults planned to rob one Angelo Kerney, later evidenced as being a trafficker of Martin’s, and to burglarize his house. On the day this happened Kerney, then 36, was at home with a 20-year-old friend named Alecio Samuel. To distract the two men, Janae Jones, one of the three adults involved here, went upstairs to have sex with Kerney, while Martin stayed downstairs to have sex with Samuel. The two adult men involved in this plan then entered the house, shot and killed Kerney, and shot Samuel in the head, but he survived, and saw the attempted clean-up of the scene. Martin was arrested and charged with delinquency counts of aggravated murder, attempted murder, felonious assault, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, and tampering with evidence.
Martin had a horrendous childhood. She had no stability in her life. Both her parents and her stepparents were involved with drugs. Her mother was imprisoned for drug trafficking. Her father abused her. She was raped repeatedly as a child by an adult male, and later impregnated. At 12, she attempted suicide. According to Martin, she was kidnapped and forced into exotic dancing at 14 or 15, and was forced to perform exotic dancing and sell drugs for Kerney.
The state asked the juvenile court to transfer Martin’s case to adult court. The juvenile court conduced an amenability hearing, at which the court psychologist testified about Martin’s childhood experiences. The judge asked the parties whether Martin’s status as a human- trafficking victim affected her amenability, and made the determination that Martin had been a human-trafficking victim. But despite this finding, neither the court nor either lawyer invoked R.C. 2152.021, which requires the appointment of a guardian ad litem for any juvenile thought to be the victim of sex trafficking when the charges related to the victimization, and contains safe harbor provisions which allow for diversion in lieu of punishment if successfully completed. The case was transferred to adult court.
In adult court, Martin challenged the court’s jurisdiction, requested a stay, vacation of the transfer order, and a remand to juvenile court to appoint a guardian ad litem and consider diversion. The trial judge determined he had no authority to review the transfer order or to remand the case.
Martin ultimately pled guilty to murder with a firearm specification and to felonious assault. She received a sentence of 21 years to life.
In a unanimous opinion, the Ninth District Court of Appeals agreed that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to consider Martin’s challenges, and because she pled guilty, she waived her claim of the juvenile court’s failure to consider the safe harbor provisions of the statute.
R.C. 2905.32 (Ohio’s human trafficking statute) (Defining human trafficking victim as an individual who is either compelled to engage in sex for hire or is under the age of 16 and participates in sex for hire. Defining human trafficking as the recruitment of a person to engage in a performance that is obscene, sexually oriented, or nudity oriented.)
R.C. 2152.021(F) (Requires appointment of a guardian ad litem for any juvenile reasonably believed to be the victim of human trafficking and the offenses charged are related to the victimization. Permits juvenile court judge to hold delinquency complaint against juveniles believed to be human trafficking victims in abeyance and allow them to have criminal charges expunged if they complete a diversion program.)
R.C. 2152.12(B) (Discretionary bindover statute for juveniles) (Subsections D and E provide factors for and against transfer of cases from juvenile to adult court.)
State v. Wilson, 73 Ohio St.3d 40 (1995) (syllabus) (Absent a proper bindover procedure, the juvenile court has exclusive, non-waivable subject matter jurisdiction over any case concerning a child who is alleged to be delinquent.)
State v. Barnes, 94 Ohio St.3d 21 (2002) (A plain error must be an obvious defect in the proceedings that affects substantial rights.)
Tyco Healthcare Group, L.P. v. Ethicon Endo-Surgery, Inc., 587 F.3d 1375 (2009) (“In general, ‘related to’ means one thing has some relationship or connection to another thing.”)
State v. Mohamed, 2017-Ohio-7468 (“To establish plain error, a defendant must show that (1) there was an error or deviation from a legal rule, (2) the error was plain and obvious, and (3) the error affected the outcome of the trial.”)
State v. Morgan, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-7565 (Applying the criminal plain error doctrine to juvenile proceedings, specifically for issues a juvenile failed to raise during an amenability hearing.)
The appointment of a guardian ad litem (“GAL”) for a juvenile offender under the Ohio Safe Harbor law requires that the judge has reason to believe the juvenile is a human trafficking victim and that the offense is related to the victimization. The judge here made the first finding, but made no finding as to the second, and did not appoint a GAL. But because no one objected to the court’s failure to apply the safe harbor provisions, the criminal plain error standard (as recently explained in State v. Morgan, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-7565) applies, and Martin failed to demonstrate plain error, meaning had a GAL been appointed and issued a report, she would not have been bound over. Conviction and sentence upheld.
Martin’s Guilty Plea in Adult Court
The appeals court held that Martin’s guilty plea in adult court waived any claimed error on the part of the juvenile court other than the jurisdictional challenge. Martin argued that her safe-harbor claim survived her guilty plea. The state argued that the adult court guilty plea waived all but the probable cause and amenability findings. The majority determined it need not decide this issue because Martin cannot prevail on the merits of her safe harbor claim under the now-required criminal plain error standard.
Ohio’s Safe Harbor Law
The Supreme Court finds that while R.C. 2152.021 (F) contains a combination of mandatory and discretionary language, it is clear and unambiguous, and thus needs no interpretation, but is to be applied as written.
The Safe Harbor Law requires the juvenile court to appoint a GAL for a juvenile charged with certain solicitation and prostitution offenses, or when the court has reason to believe that the juvenile is a human-trafficking victim and that the offenses charged are “related to” the victimization. One of the key provisions in the Safe Harbor Law is that after the appointment of a GAL, the juvenile court has the discretion, after a hearing, to hold the complaint in abeyance for up to 270 days for the juvenile to complete a diversion program. If the juvenile does so successfully, the court must dismiss the complaint and order the record expunged.
The state had argued quite heatedly that R.C. 2125.021(F)(1)(b) could never be applied to violent offenses. The Court rejects this interpretation, finding that the legislature placed no limitation on the offenses to which those safe-harbor provisions applied. The Court also noted that while not established in this case, human trafficking victims do sometimes commit violent offenses at the direction of their traffickers, and those juveniles should be allowed to present such evidence.
Martin argued that the failure of the juvenile court to appoint a guardian ad litem for her and to consider and apply the safe harbor law invalidated her transfer to adult court.
The Court considered a similar question in Morgan, another case in which a juvenile argued the failure to appoint a guardian ad litem invalidated his bindover. In that case, as in this one, there was no objection to the failure to appoint the GAL. But rather than vacating the bindover, in Morgan the Court held that the criminal plain error standard applied, meaning that the juvenile had to show prejudice, meaning the outcome would have been different had the GAL been appointed.
So, the same goes for Martin. The appointment of the GAL is mandatory here if the juvenile court has reason to believe the juvenile was a human-trafficking victim and that her offenses were related to her victimization. Martin argues both prongs were met. The state challenges the second prong.
Here, the high court finds that the juvenile court had reason to believe Martin was a human trafficking victim, and there was some evidence that Kerney was her trafficker. But, here’s the rub for the majority. The Court finds the facts and evidence in the case do not show that Martin’s offenses were related to her victimization. The juvenile court judge made no finding in this regard. There was no evidence that Martin planned these crimes to free herself from Kerney, or was coerced into committing them. So, because Martin cannot show that the offenses were related to her victimization, she failed to establish plain error.
A Small Admonishment
In the concluding section of the majority opinion, Justice French writes,
“Defense counsel, prosecutors, and the courts must become familiar with this law and follow it when it applies.”
Justice O’Donnell’s Dissent
As is his wont when he dissents, Justice O’Donnell repeats the facts in minute detail, and in this instance, with considerable sympathy toward Martin. He notes that despite finding that Martin had been a victim of sexual abuse and human trafficking in the past, the juvenile court did not make any findings as to whether the charges related to her victimization, and did not appoint a GAL.
O’Donnell would find that plain error did occur in juvenile court, as supported by the record. The first prong of the statute, that the court had reason to believe Martin was a human trafficking victim, was satisfied because the juvenile court made that finding.
O’Donnell parts company, though, with the majority’s conclusion that the acts charged were not related to Martin’s victimization which is the second requirement for plain error. He chides the majority for seeking proof of factors not required by the statute, which requires only that the court have reason to believe that “the act charged is related to the child’s victimization.” To him, the acts were related to Martin’s victimization because Kerney “controlled her at that time and she had a slavish relationship with him,” she collected money from other dancers who Kerney controlled, and knew the money would be in the house when she helped plan the robbery.
Thus, to O’Donnell, the elements of the statute triggering the court’s obligation to appoint a GAL were satisfied here. Since the juvenile court never addressed, or even considered, whether Martin’s victimization by Kerney related to the crimes, plain error occurred. O’Donnell characterized the plain error in this case as “a manifest miscarriage of justice.”
Oh my! Justice O’Donnell siding with a juvenile offender! That rarely happens, as I have often written. He seemed very moved by the horrific abusive facts of Martin’s young life.
But, as I predicted after argument, this was a loss for Martin, which is very sad, as the sentence, given her age and background, is very harsh.
Here are the pertinent parts of what I wrote after the argument. Several of these points were reflected in the Court’s opinion.
“Despite considerable sympathy for Martin’s status as a trafficking victim, even from the usually unsympathetic-to-juvenile- offenders Justice O’Donnell (who was the most active questioner in this case), the many procedural hurdles in the case will likely derail Martin’s attempt to invalidate her bindover…
“Also, most of the justices who spoke seemed inclined to take a broad view of the crimes related to victimization and eligibility for diversion—not just prostitution, solicitation and loitering to engage in solicitation. But I think in the end a majority are going to agree that the failure to appoint a GAL is not jurisdictional here, and won’t undue the bindover…
“There also seemed to be agreement that the juvenile court judge didn’t quite understand the application of the safe harbor provisions pursuant to R.C. 2152.021(F)(1).
“All in all, although I think Martin is likely to get some language encouraging an expansive reading of the safe harbor provisions, an expansive view of the relationship between the crime committed and victimization of the child, and encouragement to juvenile judges to familiarize themselves with these human trafficking issues, I don’t think Martin is going to defeat her bindover in this case. She’s probably got a better chance with her petition for post-conviction relief that the prosecutor stated was pending in this case, which was stayed pending the outcome of the appeal. One of the chief claims in that petition is ineffective assistance of counsel at the juvenile court bindover stage.”