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Circuit court did not erroneously exercise its discretion in denying criminal defendant access to juvenile records

Manitowoc County H.S.D. v. T.H., 2022AP1631, District II, 7/5/23, 1-judge decision ineligible for publication; case activity (briefs not available)

Applying a deferential standard of review, the court of appeals rejects T.H.’s attempts to obtain CPS records he claims are essential to present a complete defense in a related criminal case.

“Evan” was placed with T.H., his legal guardian, in 2018. (¶3) That same year, he was killed by another child at the home who had allegedly been delegated authority by T.H. to supervise Evan’s physical punishment, carrying heavy logs. (¶4) As a result, T.H. is currently facing a slew of serious charges, including felony murder. (¶5)

In response to those charges, T.H. has raised the defense of reasonable parental discipline under 939.45(5)(b). (¶6) In furtherance of that defense, he sought confidential records in a CHIPS case involving Evan (and his siblings) pursuant to State v. Bellows as follows:

(1) “information related to the behavioral issues the children exhibited prior to being placed in [T.H.’s] home”; (2) “information about CPS’s awareness or approval of the discipline methods and chores the children had to complete”; and (3) “information regarding the behavioral improvements that were seen in the children after being placed in [T.H.’s] home.”

(¶6). The circuit court denied T.H.’s motion. (¶7)

On appeal, T.H. pushes the court to abandon the usual deference accorded to discretionary decisions, arguing that the circuit court’s denial of access imperils his constitutional right to prevent a defense and thus should be scrutinized under a less-forgiving standard of review. (¶11) COA rejects these arguments, however, concluding that it must apply the deferential standard of review articulated in a series of binding prior decisions governing access to confidential juvenile records. (¶12)

Applying that standard, the court is therefore  easily able to brush aside T.H.’s criticisms of the circuit court’s reasoning. The circuit court’s reasoning was not illogical or unreasonable; hence, its decision to restrict T.H.’s access to these records must be upheld. (¶25). Notably, COA also sidesteps the forfeiture doctrine to reject two other unpreserved arguments made by T.H. First, it concludes that that T.H.’s right to present a complete defense does not entitle the reviewing court to disregard the otherwise legally-mandated balancing test for disclosure of confidential records. (¶28). Second, it also holds that Brady v. Maryland and Kyles v. Whitley do not provide an alternative pathway to disclosure in this instance. (¶30).

This is a complicated case involving some interesting justifications given by the circuit court in its decision denying the defense motion. While COA acknowledges those disputes at length in this opinion, the real takeaway of this case is the power of the discretionary standard of review; without it, COA may not have been able to hand-wave quite all of T.H.’s objections so neatly or cleanly.

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