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Case of the Month (from CFLR Monthly)

June 2022
[Archive]

Failure to comply with incarcerated father's rights to presence and appointment of counsel at dependency hearing was not structural error. . .

 

In affirmance, the California Supreme Court held that the juvenile court's failure to comply with incarcerated father's rights to presence and appointment of counsel at child dependency hearing was not a structural error requiring automatic reversal of the dependency adjudication, where Father received notice of hearing and appeared at subsequent proceedings.

 

In re Christopher L.

(April 25, 2022)

Supreme Court of California, S265910, __P.3d__, 12 Cal.5th 1063, 2022 WL 1210274, 2022 FA 2032, per Liu, J. (Cantil-Sakauye, C.J.; Corrigan, J.; Kruger, J.; Groban, J.; Jenkins, J.; and Peña, J.) Los Angeles County: Downing, J. For Appellant (Carlos L.): Christopher Blake. For California Appellate Defense Counsel (Amicus Curiae on behalf of Appellant): Suzanne M. Nicholson and Nicholas J. Mazanec. For Respondent (Department of Children and Family Services): Mary C. Wickham, Rodrigo A. Castro-Silva, Kim Nemoy, and Sarah J. Vesecky. For The California State Association of Counties (Amicus Curiae on behalf of Respondent): Jennifer B. Henning and Johanna L. Hartley. For Overview Party (Christopher L.): Michelle Leann Standfield. CFLP §G.168.0.75.

 

Christopher L. was born in December 2017 with a positive toxicology screen for amphetamines. The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (Department) filed a dependency petition pursuant to W&I C §300, subd. (b)(1) for Christopher L. and his 10-month-old sibling, I.L.. The initial petition listed Carlos L. as I.L.'s alleged father and another man as Christopher L.'s alleged father. However, documents presented to the juvenile court established that Carlos L. had presumed father status with respect to Christopher L. The petition alleged that the children were at risk due to their mother's history of substance abuse, both alleged fathers' histories of drug abuse, and Carlos L.'s criminal history. The petition and detention report also alleged that Mother and Carlos L. (hereinafter, "Father") both had other children who were prior dependents of the court and who had received permanent placement services.

Father was incarcerated at the time the children were detained and throughout proceedings. The court noted, as relevant here, PC §2625, subd. (b) sets forth requirements for notice to incarcerated parents and PC §2625, subd. (d) provides that an incarcerated parent who wishes to attend juvenile court proceedings be transported there. Neither parent, nor counsel for either parent, appeared at the detention hearing where the juvenile court set a combined jurisdiction and disposition hearing for March 2018 and ordered the Department give notice to the parents.

Department provided notice to Father of the pending jurisdiction and disposition hearing, to which Father responded with a letter asking if a court appearance was necessary or if the matter could be handled over the telephone so as not to delay his process of being transferred to a California Fire Camp. His letter also noted that he loves the children and would do "anything in [his] power to be with them."

Neither Father nor counsel for Father appeared at the March 2018 combined jurisdiction and disposition hearing where the juvenile court sustained the petition as to both Father and Mother and denied reunification services for both children. At the hearing, the court "suggested that the onus was on Father to make himself available and … contrary to Father's letter, that he had 'not made himself available.'" In November 2018, the juvenile court appointed counsel for Father and the matter was continued.

The juvenile court entered separate judgments terminating Father's parental rights as to each child at hearings in December 2018 (as to I.L.) and March 2020 (as to Christopher L.). Father was present via telephone and represented by counsel at both hearings. Father appealed, arguing that he was denied due process of law at the March 2018 combined jurisdiction and disposition hearing because it was conducted in his absence and without counsel present on his behalf. The Second District affirmed.

 

On appeal. . .
The Second District found that (1) as presumed father of Christopher L., Father was entitled to appointed counsel at the jurisdiction and disposition hearing; (2) the juvenile court violated PC §2625 by conducting the hearing without Father or his counsel being present and without a signed waiver from Father; (3) although Father's due process rights were violated, automatic reversal was not warranted; (4) the relevant inquiry on appeal was whether there was a reasonable probability of a more favorable outcome if Father had been present at the hearing or had been represented by counsel; (5) the bypass provisions of W&I C §361.5 applied to Father and Father could not have demonstrated that it would be in the children's best interests to provide reunification services because Father had never met Christopher L. and Father would remain in custody past the maximum reunification period; and (6) the juvenile court's errors were harmless under either the standard for state law error or the standard for federal constitutional error. Father appealed and California Supreme Court affirmed.

 

Juvenile court erred. . .
The California Supreme Court agreed with the Second District that the juvenile court erred in failing to appoint counsel for Father for the combined jurisdiction and disposition hearing and failed to comply with PC §2625 [precluding juvenile court from adjudicating dependency petition without incarcerated parent or parent's attorney being present]. The question before the California Supreme Court was whether proceeding with the jurisdiction and disposition hearing without Father's presence and without appointing Father an attorney was a structural error, and thus reversible per se.

 

Structural error could be found in child dependency proceedings. . .
The justices first noted that not all errors are amenable to the harmless error analysis, and pointed out that they have "'in a number of contexts, [found] that certain errors, by their nature, result in a 'miscarriage of justice' within the meaning of the California harmless-error provision requiring reversal without regard to the strength of the evidence received at trial.'" (quoting People v. Cahill (1993) 5 Cal.4th 478). Additionally, the Court noted that the same is true under federal law, citing Chapman v. California (1967) 386 U.S. 18, 23 [holding that while some errors of constitutional dimension are amenable to harmless error analysis, "there are some constitutional rights so basic to a fair trial that their infraction can never be treated as harmless error…"] The justices adopted the term "structural" error for those certain federal constitutional errors that are not amenable to the harmless error analysis.

Father asked the Court to import the rule of structural error into the dependency context. In addressing this issue, the justices turned to In re James F. (2008) 42 Cal.4th 901 [holding an error in process used to appoint Guardian Ad Litem for parent in a dependency proceeding is a form of trial error that is amenable to harmless-error analysis]. The justices noted that although they declined to find structural error in James F., they "did not foreclose its application in the dependency context." Accordingly, the justices held that structural error, not requiring harmless error analysis, could be found in the context of child dependency proceedings.

 

No structural error here. . .
The justices then turned to the present case to determine whether the juvenile court's failure to appoint counsel or provide for Father's presence at the combined jurisdiction and disposition hearing was a structural error. After noting the seriousness of the errors that denied Father his right to participate in a critical stage of a dependency case, the Court turned to Weaver v. Massachusetts (2017) 137 S.Ct. 1899 to examine the various rationales for treating an error as structural. In Weaver, the United States Supreme Court identified three broad rationales for treating an error as structural: (1) if the right at issue is not designed to protect the defendant from erroneous conviction but instead protects some other interest; (2) if the effects of the error are simply too hard to measure; and (3) if the error always results in fundamental unfairness. The justices considered each rationale in turn, determining that none are applicable here. Accordingly, the justices held that failure to comply with Father's rights to presence and appointment of counsel at the child dependency hearing was not a structural error and the rule of automatic reversal was unwarranted here.

 

Not a complete deprivation of notice. . .
Father also argued that the errors here are analogous to a complete deprivation of notice. Specifically, he argued that although the Department provided notice of the combined jurisdiction and disposition hearing, the trial court's error in not acknowledging Father's letter in response to the notice has effectively resulted in a lack of notice all together. The justices disagreed, noting that "Father did receive proper notice of the hearing, was present and represented at later hearings, and had recourse to a mechanism for reconsideration." The Court held that while the juvenile court committed serious errors, the prejudicial effects of such errors, if any, were beyond the ability of the courts to assess, and the rule of automatic reversal was unwarranted.

 

 

COMMENT:

  

The question before the justices was limited to whether the errors in this particular case required automatic reversal. They did not decide whether the errors are subject to the prejudice standard for state law error or the more stringent standard for federal constitutional error, nor did they decide the merits of the Court of Appeal's determination that the errors were harmless under either prejudice standard.

 

Library References
16 Witkin, Summary of Cal. Law (11th ed. 2021) Juvenile, §§ 24, 409

 

 

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