Arizona Supreme Court rules on case heard in Prescott
The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled: A parent of a minor victim cannot be forced to submit to a defense interview - even after the child turns 18.
On Sept. 30, the five Supreme Court justices left Phoenix to hear oral
arguments on "J.D./M.M. V. Hegyi (T.D./State)" at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center.
With the auditorium packed with high school and college students, it was perhaps the most popular "road show" event the court has done.
"This is the first time in recent memory that more than 700 people attended an oral argument of the Arizona Supreme Court," said Heather Murphy, the court's director of communications.
Monday's ruling went against arguments on behalf of Tony Deng, who has been incarcerated for two years on allegations he sexually abused his stepdaughter.
At the Prescott campus, justices heard arguments representing Deng and his alleged victim and her mother. The case revolved around interpretations of Arizona law 13-4403 (C), which declares, "If the victim is a minor or vulnerable adult, the victim's parent, child or other immediate family member may exercise all of the victim's rights on behalf of the victim."
After Deng was arrested, the mother of the alleged victim refused to be interviewed by Deng's attorneys, invoking the above law. But, after the alleged victim turned 18, Deng's attorneys insisted the mother no longer had the right to refuse an interview.
After Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Hugh E. Hegyi ruled in Deng's favor, an appeal was filed by the victim's mother and the prosecution. The Court of Appeals later concluded, according to a Supreme Court brief introducing the matter, the law "does not vest the parent with the indefinite status of victim and that the legal authority to exercise victims' rights exists only when the victim is a minor."
Representatives of the alleged victim, her mother and the prosecution went to the Superior Court, which agreed to hear their arguments. Attorneys on both sides submitted written briefs outlining their arguments, then came to Yavapai College prepared to orally defend their views.
The justices sided with Colleen Clase of Arizona Voice for Crime Victims. Representing Deng, Vicki Lopez of Mesa's Nolan Law Firm was unsuccessful in convincing the justices.
Clase repeatedly made the argument that the right lasts after the minor becomes an adult. She emphasized that the justices should "understand the concept, which is to protect victims."
Arguing the contrary, Lopez insisted it would be "ludicrous and absurd" to extend the right indefinitely. "Our contention is it's a temporary right," she summarized.
Chief Justice Scott Bales authored the ruling. It was unanimous, as the other four justices, Robert Brutinel, John Pelander, Rebecca White Berch and Ann A. Scott Timmer, joined in Bales' opinion.
"In a criminal case, a parent who exercises victims' rights on behalf of a minor child is statutorily entitled to refuse a defense interview," Bales wrote.
"We hold that the parent's right to refuse an interview does not expire when the victim turns 18, but instead continues until the case ends."
The ruling vacates the Court of Appeals ruling and vacates and remands Hegyi's Superior Court in Maricopa County ruling.
In his opinion, Bales noted that state legislature created a Victims' Bill of Rights in 1991, "... including the provisions stating that victims cannot be compelled to submit to a defense interview ..."
And he added that Arizona Revised Statutes (A.R.S.) 13-4433, "Victim's right to refuse an interview; applicability," was added in 2006. Section G of the law deals with "the parent or legal guardian of a minor child who exercises victims' rights on behalf of the minor child."
According to Bales' opinion, "Although this provision was intended to help preserve and protect the rights of child victims, the legislative history, like the statute itself, is ambiguous concerning the duration of the parent's right."
The five justices took the ambiguity out of the statute, with a clear declaration:
"We hold that a parent who exercises victims' rights on behalf of a minor child is entitled to refuse a defense interview through the final disposition of the charges, even if the child earlier turns 18."
The chief justice wrote that "respecting victims, protecting their rights, and aiding in their healing" are best served by construing the law "as preserving the parent's right to refuse a defense interview through the conclusion of the case.
"Even though a child has turned 18, a compelled interview of the parent who exercised the minor victim's rights could further traumatize the victim and subject the victim, although vicariously, to unwanted pretrial contact with the defendant or questioning by the defense."
What impact the oral arguments had on the justices is unknown.
At the Prescott event that featured an informal question-and-answer after the formal proceedings, Emily Hoff, a 19-year-old student at Yavapai College, asked what the five justices want to hear from attorneys.
"I don't think (lawyers) win on oral arguments - sometimes, you lose," Brutinel said.
"We're not here to see who did a better job," Bales added. "We're here to rule on the law."
The Supreme Court session at Yavapai College can be viewed online at azcourts.gov - click on "AZ Supreme Court," then "Live & Archived Video."
Follow Tom Scanlon on Twitter @tomscanlonpress.