In Re Gault 1967

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In Re Gault 1967

Appellants: Paul L. Gault and Marjorie Gault, parents of Gerald Francis Gault, a minor

Appellee: State of Arizona

Appellants' Claim: That states must give juvenile defendants the same constitutional rights as adult criminal defendants.

Chief Lawyer for Appellants: Norman Dorsen

Chief Lawyer for Appellee: Frank A. Parks, Assistant Attorney General of Arizona

Justices for the Court: Hugo Lafayette Black, William J. Brennan, Jr., Tom C. Clark, William O. Douglas, Abe Fortas, John Marshall Harlan II, Earl Warren, Byron R. White.

Justices Dissenting: Potter Stewart

Date of Decision: May 15, 1967

Decision: The Supreme Court held that Arizona violated Gault's constitutional rights.

Significance: With Gault, the Supreme Court said juvenile defendants must have notice of the charges against them, notice of their right to have an attorney, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses against them, and the right not to testify against themselves.

Gerald Francis Gault was a boy who lived in Gila County, Arizona. Early in 1964, police arrested him for being with a friend who stole a wallet from a woman's purse. For that offense, the juvenile court ordered Gault to be on probation for six months. Probation lets the court supervise someone who has broken the law.

On June 8, 1964, while Gault was still on probation, a neighbor named Mrs. Cook complained to the police that Gault and a friend made an obscene telephone call to her. Police arrested Gault while his parents were at work and took him to the Children's Detention Home. When Gault's mother arrived home, she had to search to find her son in the detention home. There Superintendent Flagg told Mrs. Gault that there would be a hearing the next day in juvenile court.

The juvenile court held two hearings for Gault's case, one on June 9 and one on June 15. The police and the court never told Gault what law he was accused of breaking. They did not explain that he could have an attorney represent him in court. The court did not even require Mrs. Cook to testify against Gault. Instead, it relied on testimony by Superintendent Flagg that Gault admitted to making an obscene telephone call to Mrs. Cook. According to Judge McGhee, Gault even confessed during the second hearing to making obscene comments on the telephone. Gault's parents denied this, saying that Gault only dialed Mrs. Cook's number and then handed the telephone to his friend.

Based on the testimony, Judge McGhee decided that Gault was a juvenile delinquent. He ordered Gault to be confined in the State Industrial School, a juvenile detention center, until he was twenty-one. Gault was only fifteen at the time, so he faced six years in detention. If Gault had been an adult, his crime would have been punishable by only two months in prison.

The Rights of the Accused

The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says states may not take away a person's liberty, meaning freedom, without due process of law. Due process means a fair trial. Under the Sixth Amendment, a trial is not fair unless the defendant has notice of the charges against him, the right to have an attorney, and the chance to face and cross-examine witnesses against him. Under the Fifth Amendment, the right against self-incrimination says defendants cannot be forced to make confessions or to testify against themselves.

Juvenile courts are not supposed to be run like criminal courts. They are supposed to help juvenile delinquents become lawful adults by reforming them, not punishing them. For this reason, Arizona's juvenile courts did not give juvenile defendants the same constitutional rights as criminal defendants.

Arizona, however, sent Gault to a detention center for six years for making an obscene telephone call. Gault's parents did not think the state should be allowed to do that without giving their son the same rights as criminal defendants. The Gaults filed a lawsuit against Arizona for holding their son in detention without giving him a fair trial. The Arizona Superior Court dismissed the case and the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed, so the Gaults appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice for All

With an 8–1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Gaults, releasing their son from detention. Writing for the Court, Justice Abe Fortas said "neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Bill of Rights is for adults alone." Even though a juvenile case is not a criminal case, sending a juvenile to a detention center takes away his liberty and freedom. "Instead of mother and father and sisters and brothers and friends and classmates, his world is peopled by guards, custodians, state employees, and 'delinquents' confined with him for anything from waywardness to rape and homicide."


O n February 29, 2000, a six-year-old boy in Michigan shot and killed his classmate with a .32 caliber semi-automatic handgun. The victim, Kayla Rolland, died from a single gunshot wound to her chest. Both children attended Theo J. Buell Elementary School in Mount Morris Township, where they had an argument the day before the shooting. The boy said Kayla slapped him on the arm during the argument and that he brought the gun to school to scare her.

Investigators learned that the boy was living with his uncle and a nineteen-year-old man named Jamelle Andrew James in a house where drug deals were common. The boy, whose mother had been evicted from her home and whose father was in jail, slept in the house without a bed. Police arrested James for allegedly letting the boy get the stolen gun to take to school. James faced a charge of involuntary manslaughter for Kayla's death, a crime punishable by up to fifteen years in prison.

Because the law says children under seven cannot intend to commit a crime, the boy probably will not face criminal charges. Prosecutor Arthur A. Busch said the boy "is a victim in many ways and we need to put our arms around him and love him." Sadly, friends and family can no longer put their arms around Kayla, who a relative described as a "very well-behaved little girl, loved by everybody."

The state cannot deprive a person, even a juvenile delinquent, of liberty without a fair trial. Fortas said Gault's trial was not fair because he did not know which crime he was accused of breaking. Without such notice and an attorney to help him, Gault could not defend himself properly. Without the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, Gault could not test whether Mrs. Cook had told the truth. Without the right against self-incrimination, Gault may have been pressured to admit to a crime he did not commit. Justice Fortas said that when a juvenile faces detention, he must have these rights and protections during his hearing.

The End of an Era

Justice Potter Stewart filed a dissenting opinion, which means he disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice Stewart agreed that juveniles deserve rights during their hearings. He disagreed, however, that they need the same rights as criminal defendants. The whole purpose of the juvenile justice system is to treat juveniles differently than adult criminals. Stewart feared the Court's decision would turn juvenile cases into criminal trials, sending America back to the days when twelve-year-old boys were sentenced to death like adults.

Suggestions for further reading

Berry, Joy. Every Kid's Guide to the Juvenile Justice System. Chicago: Children's Press, 1987.

Claiborne, William. "A 'Life in Chaos' Shaped Young Shooter." Washington Post, March 2, 2000.

Claiborne, William. "Man Charged in Schoolgirl's Slaying." Washington Post, March 3, 2000.

Gora, Joel M. Due Process of Law. National Textbook Co., 1982.

Greenberg, Keith Elliot, and Jeanne Vestal. Adolescent Rights: Are Young People Equal under the Law? Twenty First Century Books, 1995.

Hyde, Margaret O. Juvenile Justice and Injustice. New York: Franklin Watts, 1977.

Johnson, Joan. Justice. New York: Franklin Watts, 1985.

Kowalski, Kathiann M. Teen Rights: At Home, at School, Online. Enslow Publishers Inc., 2000.

Landau, Elaine. Your Legal Rights: From Custody Battles to School Searches, the Headline-Making Cases That Affect Your Life. Walker & Co., 1995.

Marx, Trish, and Sandra Joseph Nunez. And Justice for All: The Legal Rights of Young People. Millbrook Press, 1997.

Olney, Ross R., and Patricia J. Olney. Up against the Law: Your Legal Rights as a Minor. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1985.

"Pupils Return to Site of Child's Slaying." Washington Post, March 7, 2000.

Riekes, Linda, Steve Jenkins, and Armentha Russell. Juvenile Responsibility and Law. St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1990.