December 5, 2016 § 6 Comments
NOTE: The MSSC reversed the COA in Miller v. Smith, decided October 26, 2017. The Supreme Court’s decision held that a party may not be excluded from the courtroom, per Article 3, Section 25 of the Mississippi Constitution.
When it comes time for children to testify in a chancery court trial, there is a host of factors to take into account. Is it in the child’s best interest to testify? Is the child competent? Is it really necessary to subject the child to that experience?
Once the decision is made to allow the child to testify, the question arises as to how the testimony should be taken. Should the parents be present?
That question arose at trial in the case of Miller v. Smith, decided by the COA on November 22, 2016. In that case, the chancellor had excluded both the father and the mother from the court room in a contested child-custody modification case where an adolescent step-child offered testimony of sexual abuse. In an opinion affirming the trial judge, Judge Fair wrote for the COA:
¶18. At trial, Jessica’s daughter Kristen testified to several instances where Dale sexually harassed and/or abused her. The chancellor stated that due to the nature of the testimony, she preferred to clear the courtroom for Kristen’s interview, having present only the lawyers and the court reporter. The testimony was recorded, and a transcript appears in the record on appeal. Kristen testified that she went to the police to report one of the incidents (the police report was in evidence and part of the GAL’s report), but the police did not investigate further because there was no physical evidence of abuse. Also, the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) conducted an investigation (the report was also in the record and part of the GAL’s investigation) but found no physical evidence of sexual abuse. Kristen was cross-examined by Dale’s attorney, and Dale gave rebuttal testimony to his version of the events.
¶19. Dale argues the chancery court erred in allowing Kristen to testify outside of his presence. He specifically argues that doing so violated the confrontation clauses of both the United States and Mississippi Constitutions. He further argues that his forced absence from the courtroom violated Mississippi Rules of Evidence 615 and 617.
¶20. The Confrontation Clause only applies to criminal cases. “In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall have a right to be heard by himself or counsel, or both, to demand the nature and cause of the accusation, to be confronted by the witnesses against him . . . .” Miss. Const. art. 3, § 26 (emphasis added). So Dale’s first argument fails.
¶21. Article 3, Section 25 of the Mississippi Constitution simply provides that “[n]o person shall be debarred from prosecuting or defending any civil cause for or against him or herself . . . by him or herself, or counsel, or both.” Because Dale’s counsel was present during Kristen’s testimony, there was no violation of Article 3, Section 25.
¶22. Further, Dale’s argument that the chancery court violated Rule 617 is misplaced. No interview was taken using closed-circuit television, as provided in Rule 617. [Fn 7]
Rule 617 provides:
(a) Grounds. On the motion of a person named in subdivision (b), or on its own, the court may order that a child’s testimony be taken outside the courtroom and shown in the courtroom by means of closed-circuit television if the court determines that:
(1) the child is under the age of 16 years;
(2) the testimony is that an unlawful sexual act, contact, intrusion, penetration, or other sexual offense was committed on the child; and
(3) there is a substantial likelihood that the child will suffer traumatic emotional or mental distress if compelled to testify:
(A) in open court; and
(B) in a criminal case, in the presence of the accused. (Emphasis added).
¶23. Dale asserts that Rule 615, commonly known as “the Rule,” and occasionally more properly “the exclusionary rule,” deprived him of due process. Rule 615 states:
At a party’s request, the court must order witnesses excluded so that they cannot hear other witnesses’ testimony. Or the court may do so on its own. But this rule does not authorize excluding:
(a) a party who is a natural person . . . .
¶24. The chancellor disregarded Dale’s objection to being forced to leave the courtroom during Kristen’s testimony. Because Dale was a party, he argues that, under a strict interpretation of the Rule, the chancellor did not have the authority to exclude him from being present. The procedure used by the chancellor in this case (excluding parents and/or stepparents in basically an “in camera” proceeding) is common, either by agreement or without objection of parties, in custody cases. See Robison v. Lanford, 841 So. 2d 1119, 1121 (¶21) (Miss. 2003) (holding that, as a matter of first impression, records of in-chambers interviews with children during child custody modification proceedings were required to be made).
¶25. There are exceptions to the Rule. For example, in Rule 617, parties who are alleged to be guilty of sexual abuse of a child may be excluded from the personal presence of children ages sixteen and under. M.R.E. 617. There is not, however, reported precedent of enforced exclusion of a party under the present circumstances of testimony by a seventeen year-old stepchild.
¶26. In a number of criminal cases, our supreme court has found that failure of enforcement of the exclusionary rule does not automatically result in reversal, holding that prejudice must accompany failure to exclude. See Avery v. State, 119 So. 3d 317, 320 (¶9) (Miss. 2013); Woulard v. State, 832 So. 2d 561, 565 (¶13) (Miss. 2002). Here, Dale has failed to show how he was prejudiced from the chancellor’s error. Not only was his attorney present during Kristen’s testimony, he cross-examined Kristen. The chancellor also allowed Dale to give rebuttal testimony to factual assertions by Kristen. Consequently, we find that no reversible error has been shown under this issue.
The situation described here is, as Judge Fair notes, fairly common in chancery court. In my experience, the parties often agree that they will leave the court room during the child’s testimony, as long as their attorneys can remain and participate. Most parents do not want to appear to be trying to pressure the child or to be putting their own interests ahead of the child’s, so they agree. In those cases where they both do not agree, however, and the chancellor finds that it would be in the child’s best interest for them to be excluded, this case is authority to support that action.