Interesting Legal Update


In Miranda calculus, age should be a factor, Court says
Stressing that children are not “miniature adults,” a divided U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday held that the police must consider a juvenile suspect’s age in deciding whether the child is in custody and must be given Miranda warnings.

Marcia Coyle
June 16, 2011

Stressing that children are not “miniature adults,” a divided U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday held that the police must consider a juvenile suspect’s age in deciding whether the child is in custody and must be given Miranda warnings.

“It is beyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the 5-4 majority. “Seeing no reason for police officers or courts to blind themselves to that commonsense reality, we hold that a child’s age properly informs the Miranda custody analysis.”

Her opinion in J.D.B. v. North Carolina drew a sharp rebuttal from a dissenting Justice Samuel Alito Jr. who, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, criticized the ruling as an “extreme makeover” of the landmark Miranda v. Arizona.

The Court’s decision, Alito wrote, is “fundamentally inconsistent with one of the main justifications for the Miranda rule: the perceived need for a clear rule that can be easily applied in all cases. And today’s holding is not needed to protect the constitutional rights of minors who are questioned by the police.”

The high court case arose out of police questioning of a 13-year-old boy in connection with two home break-ins. The boy was taken from his middle school classroom by a uniformed officer to a school conference room where, behind closed doors, he was questioned for 30-45 minutes by a second officer, who knew the boy’s age. An assistant principal and an administrative intern also were present. After the principal urged the boy to “do the right thing” and the officer told him that he could be sent to juvenile detention, J.D.B. confessed to his and a friend’s involvement in the break-ins. The officer then informed J.D.B. that he could refuse to answer questions and was free to leave.

A trial court refused to suppress J.D.B.’s statements, which his lawyer argued were taken in violation of his Miranda rights. The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed, holding that J.D.B. was not in custody when he confessed. Courts have divided over whether age should be a factor in determining custody.

In her analysis, Justice Sotomayor acknowledged that whether a suspect is in custody is an objective inquiry. Police and courts, she said, look at the circumstances surrounding the interrogation and then ask whether a reasonable person would have felt free to leave. However, she rejected arguments by North Carolina and its supporters — other states and prosecutors — that a child’s age, no matter how young, has no place in that inquiry.

A child’s age, she said, is far more than a chronological fact. Laws and court decisions throughout history, she explained, have recognized that children cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults.

“So long as the child’s age was known to the officer at the time of police questioning, or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, its inclusion in the custody analysis is consistent with the objective nature of that test,” she wrote. A child’s age, she added, may not be a determining or significant factor in every case, but it is “a reality that courts cannot simply ignore.”

Justice Alito countered that the majority had failed to show why age is different from other personal characteristics, such as intelligence, education, or a suspect’s cultural background — characteristics that also could make suspects vulnerable to coercion during police questioning.

“I have little doubt that today’s decision will soon be cited by defendants — and perhaps by prosecutors as well — for the proposition that all manner of other individual characteristics should be treated like age and taken into account in the Miranda custody calculus,” he wrote.

He also warned that the majority’s test would be hard for the police to follow and hard for judges to apply. But Sotomayor said officers and judges “need no imaginative powers, knowledge of developmental psychology, training in cognitive science or expertise in social and cultural anthropology” to determine a child’s age. “They simply need the common sense to know that a seven-year-old is not a 13-year-old and neither is an adult.”

Steven Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University School of Law, which filed a brief supporting J.D.B., noted that the Court’s decision is the first time that the Court has applied Miranda to a “run-of-the-mill, garden-variety juvenile court case.”

“The Court has never held before that Miranda applies to juveniles,” he said. “It has been presumed it does, but this is really the first time the Court has specifically said it does and dealt with it in the context of a juvenile in juvenile court as opposed to a murder case where he is tried as an adult.”

The decision is also the first time the Court applied Miranda in a school interrogation, he added. “That’s huge. Many police interrogations of children start with questioning at schools. Many times they interrogate kids at school to evade the requirements of Miranda. Their perception is that without taking kids to the police station, he or she is less likely to feel they’re not free to leave and therefore we don’t need to apply Miranda. This opinion says, `Think twice before you make those assumptions. You’re dealing with children here.'”

Jeffrey Green of Sidley Austin, who filed an amicus brief for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers on behalf of J.D.B., said police officers can assess age “fairly quickly,” even if not readily apparent.

The decision is a “ringing endorsement of commonsense,” he said, adding, “I wish the Court would acknowledge the broader proposition that few people – even bad actors – feel free to leave once police have focused on them. The result of a broader definition of custody is merely that more suspects will receive Miranda warnings, more people will understand their rights and make informed choices. How is that a bad thing?”

The court remanded the case back to the lower court for consideration of whether J.D.B. was in custody, this time considering his age as well as the other circumstances of his interrogation.

Marcia Coyle can be contacted at mcoyle@alm.com.

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