Tennessee Supreme Court declines to review case featured in Center report

Truant was jailed twice at 13, allegedly without first being informed of right to counsel

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The Tennessee State Supreme Court late last week denied a request to review the conviction of an accused truant jailed twice at 13, allegedly without first being informed of his right to appointment of legal counsel. The young man, identified as T.W., who has diagnosed mental-health needs, failed to graduate from high school in spite of a punishment regime designed to change his pattern of absences.

Details of the court case were featured in a Center for Public Integrity report this month on allegations that some of the hundreds of accused truants summoned to Knox County Juvenile Court in Tennessee in recent years were incarcerated in juvenile detention, drug tested or faced other lasting consequences without the benefit of appointed defense counsel.

The Tennessee State Supreme Court did not provide any commentary or rationale accompanying its decision.

“Our clients have exhausted their legal remedies through the Tennessee courts. We are planning to pursue other avenues of redress,” said Dean Rivkin, a University of Tennessee law professor who filed the appeal, originally on behalf of T.W. and three other truants. The appeal has been winding through lower courts since 2011.

Rivkin hopes that the redress he is seeking will stem from an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, as the Center report explained.

The allegations in Knox County highlight a broader national debate over how juveniles are being treated in courts, and if minors’ legal rights are being respected or need to be strengthened.  

The Center reported that Robert Listenbee, who heads the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, has asked for a Department of Justice investigation into allegations that minors in Tennessee did not benefit from appointed defense counsel, as required.

Dena Iverson, a Department of Justice spokeswoman, confirmed that information forwarded by Listenbee’s office is under review.

Truancy in most states is a so-called “status offense,” like running away, smoking or violating curfews; these are non-criminal infractions that only minors can be accused of committing.  

Status offenders have no constitutional right to the appointment of attorneys, if indigent, before they enter guilty pleas. They do have the right under federal law, however, to appointment of attorneys before they face possible jailing for failing to follow court orders handed down to control their behavior after they plead guilty.

Judge Tim Irwin of the Knox County Juvenile Court declined to discuss kids’ cases. But when he rejected Rivkin’s initial appeal to reverse T.W. and other students’ convictions, Irwin said that T.W. and the three other original plaintiffs were informed of their rights and chose to plead guilty without legal counsel.

In Knox County, some families allege their kids were not informed of their right to appointed counsel as required at certain points in proceedings. One young woman told the Center that when she was 15 she was taken from court, screaming, and shackled and put into detention immediately after she pled guilty to truancy without a lawyer. 

She and another youth interviewed by the Center said they didn’t know until years later they had been given delinquency records by the court. Such records are comparable to a youth having committed a crime, and that can taint job and other types of applications if a court does not agree to expunge them.  

 Rivkin and other lawyers in Knox County question how many truants also have delinquency records and don’t know it.

 Last December, a Tennessee State Court of Appeals found that the plaintiffs had not filed appeals of their original convictions within a 10-day deadline.

The families did not have attorneys to help them file appeals, some of the kids’ parents said. But the appeals court panel found that Rivkin’s argument that new information that he had discovered about the children—information that did not come out initially in truancy court—did not fit the burden of proof needed to grant an appeal.