Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Definition Debate

In re M.K., 2015 VT 8

By Elizabeth Kruska

My favorite movie is The Princess Bride. One of the best parts (Okay, who are we kidding? All the parts are the best parts) is when Vizzini keeps exclaiming, “Inconceivable!” and Inigo Montoya finally responds, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

In this case, a child in need of supervision (CHINS) case was filed, alleging that M.K. was the subject of abuse. Briefly, the facts alleged were that M.K. and his mom were walking in a driveway, that M.K. dropped a toy he was carrying, and that his mom “lost it” and tossed him to the ground. This all occurred behind their apartment building, which had a video surveillance system. The video system recorded the incident, which was used by the State at trial to help prove the CHINS case. The juvenile court made a CHINS finding relative to M.K. M.K.’s younger sibling was also present during the incident, and although the state filed a CHINS petition relative to that child, the court didn’t make a CHINS finding there.

Mom appealed. She said first of all, that there wasn’t enough evidence to support the CHINS finding relative to M.K.


SCOV says there was enough evidence. SCOV gives a lot of deference to trial courts in making factual findings; after all, the trial courts are the ones that hear the evidence. They’re in a better position to make findings so long as they are supported by the evidence. SCOV even took a look at the video just to see if the factual findings made by the trial court were supported by the record. SCOV says they were.

Mom also argued that there’s no definition of abuse in the realm of CHINS. That’s important, because if it’s a CHINS case about abuse, it’s helpful to know what “abuse” means in that context. In other words, “abuse” is a word that gets tossed around a lot, but like Inigo Montoya might point out, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

The reason she makes this argument is that “abuse” is defined in different parts of the Vermont Statutes, but not specifically with respect to the CHINS statute. The State relied on a definition of “abuse” from a different subsection of the statutes when it argued before the trial court. Mom’s counter argument is that if the statute isn’t clear, then use a common everyday definition or a definition from the dictionary. After all, that’s what dictionaries are for.

SCOV says that first of all, the State’s argument is misplaced. The section the State relied on is pretty clear that it’s only for that particular part of the statute – that is to say, it wasn’t intended by the legislature to be used in CHINS (or other) proceedings.

SCOV relies on some prior caselaw and reiterates that there’s really not a precise definition for abuse when it comes to CHINS proceedings. The legislature left it open, and that is okay; they’re not required to make that definition. If there was a definition in the statute, it’s entirely possible that it could be too narrow to do what’s really needed in CHINS cases, which is to protect kids.

So, SCOV affirms the trial court, finding that the trial court’s findings were appropriately based on the evidence before the court.

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