A self-described “avid reader” of Legal Insurrection has asked us to address the issue of the confidentiality of Mike Brown’s juvenile criminal record (if any), and whether these are likely to be released to the press and public.

Disclaimer: Neither I nor Legal Insurrection knows with certainty whether Mike Brown even has a juvenile criminal record, nor (if such exists) what offenses might have been charged or adjudicated in such a record.  It appears that early internet claims that Brown’s juvenile record contained a serious felony were in error. The collected information released by various government actors (or refused to be discussed, as by Brown family lawyers) can be interpreted to suggest that a juvenile record exists, but that it does not contain any serious felonies.  For purposes of the following discussion I will assume this to be the case. Make no mistake, however: our knowledge of any actual juvenile record of Mike Brown is merely speculative.

With that out of the way, let’s consider the laws, legal principles, and public policy that govern the confidentiality of such juvenile records in Missouri.

US Supreme Court: First Amendment, History Require Trials Be Public

In general, trials taking place in court rooms are public events.  In particular, the US Supreme Court has ruled that absent some compelling counter interest the press cannot be denied access to a criminal trial. See Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (US Supreme Court 1980).  There the Court wrote:

The right to attend criminal trials is implicit in the guarantees of the First Amendment: without the freedom to attend such trials, which people have exercised for centuries, important aspects of freedom of speech and of the press could be eviscerated.

(Note that Richmond is a plurality decision with much exchange between the Justices; it also contains a far-reaching review of fundamental historical underpinnings of publicly conducted trials. For these reasons alone students of legal history generally and Supreme Court history in particular may find the opinion worth a read.)

Naturally, if the trial itself–including all testimony and the final adjudication–is normally required to be public, there could be no sense in keeping confidential the normal records of that trial.

The key, of course, is in the phrase “normally required to be public.”  The public nature of a criminal trial is not absolute, but rather may be constrained by a compelling counter interest.

Perhaps the most common and broadly accepted constraint of this type is the confidentiality of criminal proceedings involving juveniles.  Most if not all states require that juvenile criminal records be kept confidential under most circumstances, and Missouri is no exception.

Missouri §211.321: Juvenile court records, confidentiality, exceptions

The key Missouri statute requiring confidentiality for juvenile criminal records is §211.321. “Juvenile court records, confidentiality, exceptions–records of peace officers, exceptions, release of certain information to victim” (such confidentiality is also mentioned in passing in other statutes within that chapter of MO law).

In relevant part §211.321 provides that:

Records of juvenile court proceedings as well as all information obtained and social records prepared in the discharge of official duty for the court shall not be open to inspection or their contents disclosed . . .

and:

[T]he records of the juvenile court as well as all information obtained and social records prepared in the discharge of official duty for the court shall be kept confidential . . .

Seems simple enough. Of course, this being the law there are numerous exceptions to this otherwise blanket requirement of confidentiality. Indeed, the statute title itself explicitly mentions “exceptions.”

Exceptions to Missouri Confidentiality of Juvenile Records

One is that the records may revealed “by order of the court to persons having a legitimate interest therein.”  This category of “persons” is generally limited to those who have a duty to care for or provide guardian-like oversight of the juvenile, including parents, involved social workers, as well as law enforcement authorities.  Neither the general public nor press fall within this category, however.

Another exception is for certain particularly heinous crimes that might be committed by a juvenile, specifically that that “would be a class A felony under the criminal code of Missouri, or capital murder, first degree murder, or second degree murder.”

The statute also carves out certain specific of criminal offenses that may be considered for certain limited purposes, such as in sentencing, that would otherwise have remained confidential.  These offenses consist of: “rape, sodomy, murder, kidnapping, robbery, arson, burglary or any acts involving the rendering or threat of serious bodily harm.”

The greatest exception to confidentiality however, is found in §211.321.2(2):

After a child has been adjudicated delinquent . . . for an offense which would be a felony if committed by an adult, the records of the dispositional hearing and proceedings related thereto shall be open to the public to the same extent that records of criminal proceedings are open to the public.

So, commit an adult-level felony as a juvenile, and those records fall outside of the usual protections afforded to juvenile criminal records.  It is surely this section that underlies recent denials by a juvenile court official that Brown was ever convicted of a serious felony “such as first-degree murder or second-degree murder.”   This disclosure was made at a hearing involving motions by news organizations for the release of Brown’s juvenile record.

Rationale for Juvenile Confidentiality Would Seem to End at Death

All of that US Constitutional and Missouri statutory law, however, would seem to be beside the point, given perhaps the key defining characteristic of this particular case:  the fact that Brown is deceased.

To understand why we must look at the fundamental fundamental principles and rationales that underly the public policy of confidentiality of juvenile records in the first place. After all, criminal proceedings and records are not generally confidential–there must be something different about such matters in a juvenile setting to warrant this confidentiality.

Indeed, there are several rationales behind the public policy of juvenile record confidentiality, all centered on the notion that confidentiality of such records is in the best interests of the juvenile, and a lack of confidentiality would likely hamper the ability of the juvenile to “turn their life around,” as the cliche has it.

All of these rationales, however, are personal to the juvenile.  And as such, they pass away when the juvenile passes away.  Upon death, the juvenile has no further prospects for “turning their life around,” and thus a lack of confidentiality cannot harm such prospects.  The very rationale for confidentiality disappears entirely.

What little rationale may exist for maintaining confidentiality of a deceased juvenile’s criminal record–embarrassment to the juvenile’s family?–must surely be overcome by the Constitutional rights of the public and the press to access criminal proceedings and records, as recognized in Richmond and elsewhere.

This would seem to be particularly the case where some still living individual–in this case, Officer Darren Wilson–faces potential criminal liability based on an engagement with the juvenile for which a juvenile record might be relevant.

If All Else Fails, Find a Victim

If all else fails, however, an enterprising journalist might still be able to access Brown’s juvenile criminal records (if any) by a “backdoor” approach provided for by Missouri statute.

Specifically, §211.321.6 provides that:

Nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent the release of general information regarding the informal adjustment or formal adjudication of the disposition of a child’s case to a victim or a member of the immediate family of a victim of any offense committed by the child. Such general information shall not be specific as to location and duration of treatment or detention or as to any terms of supervision.

So if Brown had committed crimes as a juvenile resulting in a confidential juvenile record, any victim of that crime is entitled to access at least general information about the adjudication of that offense–which would certainly include any determination of guilt.  Further, that victim is under no constraint to keep such information confidential from the public or press.

Find an actual victim of a crime committed by Mike Brown as a juvenile, convince them to request information about the adjudication of that offense, further convince them to share that information with you, and bada-bing bada-boom, you’ve pierced confidentiality.

At least, that’s how I read the law–of course, IANAL in Missouri.

Thus, I expect that one way or another, Mike Brown’s juvenile record will eventually be disclosed.

Unless, of course, politics trumps legal process. Not that that would ever happen.

–-Andrew, @LawSelfDefense


Andrew F. Branca is an MA lawyer and the author of the seminal book “The Law of Self Defense, 2nd Edition,” available at the Law of Self Defense blog (autographed copies available) and Amazon.com (paperback and Kindle). He holds many state-specific Law of Self Defense Seminars around the country, and produces free online self-defense law educational video- and podcasts at the Law of Self Defense University.