Protecting A Constitutional Right in the Face of a Public Health Crisis

 The COVID-19 pandemic forced courts to adopt procedures in light of the public health crisis.  In large part, this meant extremely limiting in-person proceedings and utilizing video conferencing software.  However, the pandemic did not allow the suspension or restriction of an individual’s constitutional rights in criminal cases.

By: Rachel McKee Taylor

J.A.T. v. Jackson County Juv. Off., 637 S.W.3d 1 (Mo. 2022) (en banc)


     In J.A.T. v. Jackson County Juvenile Officer, the Supreme Court of Missouri found that requiring a juvenile to attend an adjudication hearing by two-way video when the juvenile requested to appear in person violated the juvenile’s constitutional due process rights.1  Judge Zel M. Fischer wrote the majority opinion, in which Chief Justice Wilson and Judges Russell, Breckenridge, Ransom, and Draper joined.2  Judge Powell issued a concurring opinion, which was joined by Judges Ransom and Draper.3  


     J.A.T.’s criminal charges arose from a drug deal gone wrong.4  An individual contacted Dalvon Stiner on Snapchat and asked to purchase marijuana from him.5  The individual and Stiner arranged a plan for the marijuana purchase.6  Two individuals met Stiner to buy the marijuana.7  However, the drug deal went awry, and one of the individuals shot Stiner six times.8

     Detective Kaitlyn Elias responded to the scene and investigated the shooting.9  She found five .45-caliber shell casings, two .40-caliber shell casings, a bullet fragment, a firearm, a .45 caliber magazine, and 18 grams of marijuana.10  The firearm found was reported as stolen, and Detective Elias testified that Stiner had the firearm in his possession the night of the shooting.11  The day after the shooting, Detective Elias spoke to Stiner.12  Stiner described the two suspects as fourteen to sixteen years old and 5’5” to 5’6” in height and provided the Snapchat account name of the person with whom he arranged the meeting.13  Detective Elias applied for a search warrant from Snapchat for the messages between Stiner and the individual who contacted Stiner to buy the marijuana.14 

     The school district assisted Detective Elias in identifying the individuals connected to the Snapchat username.15  From this, Detective Elias discovered J.A.T.’s address was close to the shooting location.16  Stiner identified J.A.T. as the front passenger from a photo lineup.17  Detective Elias stated that a Snapchat video acquired through the search warrant was time-stamped “just prior” to the shooting and showed J.A.T. holding a firearm and waving the barrel of the firearm in front of the camera.18  Detective Elias testified that DNA recovered from inside Stiner’s vehicle and the firearm magazine did not match J.A.T, and a search warrant was executed on J.A.T’s home, and no firearms were discovered.19    

     The Jackson County juvenile officer filed a petition alleging J.A.T. committed acts that would be first-degree assault, first-degree attempted robbery, and two counts of armed criminal action if committed by an adult.20  Before the adjudication hearing, J.A.T. filed an “Objection to Adjudication by Video,” arguing J.A.T. had a right under the Missouri Constitution, United States Constitution, and Missouri statute to be adjudicated in person and to confront adverse witnesses in person.21  The juvenile officer filed a “Response to Juvenile’s Objection to Adjudication by Video,” claiming J.A.T.’s participation in the hearing by two-way video was suitable during the COVID-19 pandemic and would protect J.A.T’s constitutional rights.22 

     The circuit court required J.A.T. to attend the adjudication hearing via two-way live video from the juvenile detention facility.23  The circuit judge, J.A.T.’s attorney, the juvenile officer’s attorney, a deputy juvenile officer, a victim services representative, J.A.T.’s parents, and the witnesses appeared at the hearing in person.24  During recess, J.A.T.’s attorney went to the detention center and presented closing argument from there.25  J.A.T. again objected to the circuit court’s requirement that J.A.T attend the hearing via two-way video.26  The circuit court overruled J.A.T’s objection.27  The circuit court reasoned that during the COVID-19 pandemic, “[W]e’ve had to make a number of significant adjustments to how we do things in court.”28  One such thing, the circuit court stated, was the use of Webex technology, which the circuit court claimed the Supreme Court of Missouri had explicitly given it permission to use.29  The circuit court further reasoned that many detention facilities had struggled with preventing COVID-19 from spreading in their facilities, and requiring juveniles to not be transported to and from court limited exposure to germs.30  Thus, the circuit court found that it was reasonable for J.A.T. to attend the hearing via video and the Webex procedure did not violate J.A.T.’s due process rights “in any way.”31         

     The circuit court sustained the claims of first-degree assault and armed criminal action relating to the assault beyond a reasonable doubt.32  The circuit court ordered J.A.T. be committed to the custody of the Division of Youth Services.33  J.A.T. appealed, arguing that requiring him to attend the adjudication hearing via two-way video violated his due process and confrontation rights under the United States Constitution, the Missouri Constitution, and Supreme Court of Missouri Rule 128.34   The court of appeals issued an opinion but transferred the case to the Supreme Court of Missouri pursuant to Missouri Supreme Court Rule 83.02.35 


     The COVID-19 pandemic forced courts to adopt procedures in light of the public health crisis.36  In large part, this meant extremely limiting in-person proceedings and utilizing video conferencing software.37  However, the pandemic did not allow the suspension or restriction of an individual’s constitutional rights in criminal cases.38  To address public health concerns, the Supreme Court of Missouri issued Operational Directives for Missouri Courts to follow to promote health and safety.39  On March 16, 2020, the Supreme Court of Missouri issued its first order relating to COVID-19 in which the court suspended in-person proceedings subject to several exceptions, one being “proceedings necessary to protect the constitutional rights of criminal defendants and juveniles.”40 

     The United States Constitution provides rights to criminal defendants that cannot be infringed upon by the states.41  These rights include the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment.42  The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty,  or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.43

     The Confrontation Clause guarantees a criminal defendant’s right to be present in the courtroom at each stage of the defendant’s trial and to confront the witnesses against him or her.44  The Missouri Constitution similarly guarantees the right of confrontation stating:

That in criminal prosecutions the accused shall have the right to appear and defend, in person and by counsel; to demand the nature and cause of the accusation; to meet the witnesses against him face to face; to have process to compel the attendance of witnesses in his behalf; and a speedy public trial by an impartial jury of the county.45

     In juvenile cases, an adjudication hearing is the equivalent of a criminal trial.46  At an adjudication hearing, the prosecutor and the accused juvenile can present evidence.47  The court will then determine whether the juvenile committed the offenses.48  In Application of Gault, the United States Supreme Court held juveniles have a right to notice of charges, counsel, confrontation and cross-examination of witnesses, and privilege against self-incrimination.49  Thus, a juvenile has fundamental constitutional rights that cannot be infringed upon even in the interest of public health concerns during a pandemic.50


     The majority found that requiring J.A.T. to attend the adjudication hearing via video violated his constitutional rights.51 Judge Brent Powell concurred in the judgment but wrote separately to express that the court’s holding should not be construed too broadly.52

A. Majority

     The majority stated that under the United States Constitution and under United States Supreme Court precedent, a juvenile has a right to be present at an adjudication hearing.53  The court found J.A.T. asserted his right to be present in the courtroom at his adjudication hearing multiple times, and the circuit court denied J.A.T. the “crucial right” to be physically present at the hearing when it required J.A.T. to attend via two-way video.54  The court noted J.A.T.’s exclusion was no fault of J.A.T., and because the adjudication hearing was J.A.T.’s chance to defend against the juvenile officer’s accusations, the exclusion affected the fairness of the proceeding.55 

     The court reasoned that the circuit court’s explanation that J.A.T.’s exclusion was justified due to the COVID-19 pandemic did not alone condone the denial of J.A.T.’s right to be present at the adjudication hearing, which was the most critical stage of his proceeding.56  The court further noted that J.A.T.’s counsel was allowed to go to the detention facility for the conclusion of the hearing after J.A.T.’s counsel had been present in the courtroom, which undercut the circuit court’s reasoning regarding preventing the spread of germs.57 

     The Supreme Court of Missouri also found nothing in its Operation Directives that gave the circuit court permission to hold J.A.T.’s adjudication hearing without J.A.T. physically present.58  The COVID-19 Operational Directives laid out phases of operation to guide Missouri courts in gradually resuming in-person appearances and proceedings.59  During the pandemic, the Supreme Court of Missouri’s orders did not permit suspension of in-person proceedings that were “necessary to protect the constitutional rights of criminal defendants.”60  Even during the most restrictive phase of operation where all in-person proceedings were suspended, “Proceedings pursuant to chapters 210 and 211 pertaining to juvenile delinquency” were excepted.61 

     Thus, the court concluded the circuit court violated J.A.T.’s constitutional right to due process, and the circuit court “failed to heed the caution of this court,” which was drafted to protect juveniles’ constitutional and statutory rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.62 

B. Concurrence

     Judge Powell agreed with the majority opinion that the circuit court violated J.A.T.’s constitutional rights by requiring J.A.T. to attend the adjudication hearing via two-way video but wrote separately “to caution that this holding should not be construed too broadly.”63  Judge Powell noted as long as a trial or proceeding is conducted in such a way that ensures a fair and just hearing for the defendant, a defendant’s exclusion from the courtroom would not per se violate due process.64  However, Judge Powell found the facts of the present case indicated J.A.T. was prejudiced by limiting his physical attendance and participation at the hearing and did not receive a fair and just hearing.65


     The Supreme Court of Missouri rightly found the circuit court violated J.A.T.’s constitutional and statutory rights.  An adjudicatory hearing is the ultimate determination of a juvenile’s fate.  Consequently, it is imperative that a juvenile’s constitutional rights are fully protected despite the COVID-19 pandemic or other public health crises.

     As of May 25, 2022, 2,890 incarcerated individuals have died due to COVID-19.66  This number is a tragic reflection of the toll COVID-19 has had on the United States.  But as the Supreme Court of Missouri stated, “Neither the United States Constitution nor the Missouri Constitution are entitled to take ‘sick days.’”67  Public health concerns cannot supersede an individual’s constitutional rights.68  In the present case, those constitutional rights required J.A.T’s physical presence in the courtroom.  As the majority noted, the circuit court’s reasoning was severely undermined by J.A.T.’s counsel moving between the courtroom and the detention center throughout the adjudication hearing.69  If a court is going to use protecting public health as a justification for prohibiting a juvenile’s presence at his critical hearing over his objection, the actions the court takes must, at the very least, further that goal.  J.A.T.’s counsel going from the courthouse to J.A.T. at the detention center is no different than if J.A.T. had been present in the courtroom himself.

     In his concurrence, Judge Powell indicated the circuit court could have taken different measures to provide J.A.T. a way to safely attend the hearing in person.70  For example, the circuit court could have utilized social distancing and masks, which are precautions that can be easily implemented.  This is especially the case with J.A.T.’s adjudication hearing because there was no jury.71  Generalized public health concerns are important considerations when operating during a pandemic, but those should not come at the expense of ensuring fundamental constitutional rights are protected. 


     The Supreme Court of Missouri correctly found J.A.T. had a constitutional right to appear in person at his adjudication hearing.72  Although public health concerns are immense during the COVID-19 pandemic, an individual’s constitutional protections must always be guarded.



[1] J.A.T. v. Jackson County Juv. Off., 637 S.W.3d 1, 10 (Mo. 2022) (en banc).

[2] Id.

[3] J.A.T. v. Jackson County Juv. Off., 637 S.W.3d 1, 10 (Mo. 2022) (Powell, J., concurring).

[4] J.A.T., 637 S.W.3d at 5–6.

[5] Id. at 5. The facts from this case come from the testimony of Stiner Detective Kaitlyn Elias presented at J.A.T.’s adjudication hearing.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.  

[8] Id.

[9] Id.  

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 5–6.

[12] Id. at 6.

[13] Id.  

[14] Id.

[15] Id.  

[16] Id.  

[17] Id.  

[18] Id.  

[19] Id.  At the adjudication hearing, the juvenile officer also admitted into evidence a .45-caliber bullet, multiple crime search photos, the Snapchat search warrant, booking photographs used for the lineup, and the photographic lineup presented to Stiner.  Id. at 5–6.

[20] Id. at 3.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id. at 4.

[24] Id.

[25] Id. at n.2.

[26] Id. at 4.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id. (emphasis added).

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32]  Id. at 6. The circuit court did not sustain the claim of first-degree attempted robbery and armed criminal action relating to the attempted robbery.  Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id. In part, rule 128.01 provides, “Except as provided in this Rule 128.01, in any proceeding under subdivision (2) or (3) of subsection 1 of section 211.031, RSMo, the juvenile and the juvenile’s parents, guardian or custodian shall have the right to be present at all times during any hearing.” And, “No hearing, including a hearing to determine under Rule 129 whether the juvenile is a proper subject to be dealt with under the provisions of the juvenile code, may be commenced without the presence of the juvenile unless the juvenile’s presence is waived by counsel.”

[35] Id.  Rule 83.02 provides in relevant part, “A case disposed of by an opinion, memorandum decision, written order, or order of dismissal in the court of appeals may be transferred to this Court by order of a majority of the participating judges, regular and special, on their own motion or on application of a party. Transfer may be ordered because of the general interest or importance of a question involved in the case or for the purpose of reexamining existing law.” Mo. Sup. Ct. R. 83.02.

[36] As Pandemic Lingers, Courts Lean Into Virtual Technology, U.S. Courts (Feb. 18, 2021)

[37] Supreme Court of Missouri en banc, Order In re: Response to the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Pandemic, (Mar. 16, 2020)

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Id.

[41] U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1; U.S. Const. amend. VI.

[42] Id.

[43] U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1 (emphasis added).

[44] U.S. Const. amend VI.

[45] Mo. Const. art. I, § 18; Additionally, RSMo § 546.030 provides, “No person indicted for a felony can be tried unless he be personally present, during the trial. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 546.030 (2016).

[46]Mark Theoharis, What is an Adjudicatory Hearing?, Criminal Defense Lawyer (last visited Jul. 6, 2022).

[47] Id.

[48] Id.

[49] Application of Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 57 (1967).

[50] See J.A.T. v. Jackson County Juv. Off., 637 S.W.3d 1, 10 (Mo. 2022) (en banc).

[51] Id.

[52] Id. (Powell, J., concurring).

[53] Id. at 7.  

[54] Id. at 8.  

[55] Id.  

[56] Id. at 8–9.  

[57] Id. at 9.

[58] Id.

[59] Id.

[60] Id.

[61] Id.   

[62] Id. at 10. The court did not address J.A.T.’s confrontation clause argument because the case was remanded for further proceedings. Id. at 10 n.5.  

[63] Id. at 10. (Powell, J., concurring).

[64] Id. (Powell, J., concurring).  

[65] Id. (Powell, J., concurring).  

[66] The COVID Prison Project tracks data and policy across the country to monitor COVID-19 in prisons, The Covid Prison Project (last visited Jul. 6, 2022).

[67] J.A.T., 637 S.W.3d at 10.  

[68] Id.   

[69] Id. at 9.

[70] Id. at 11. (Powell, J., concurring).   

[71] Doug Rees, Socially-Distanced Justice? The Effect of Jury Trials During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Cooper Scully (Sept. 14, 2020)

[72] J.A.T., 637 S.W.3d at 10.