The U.S. Supreme Court appeared sharply split on Wednesday over a case about the police interrogation at school of a 13-year-old student suspected of committing neighborhood thefts.
More-liberal members of the court aggressively questioned the circumstances surrounding the 2005 interrogation of a boy identified as J.D.B., whose statements were used against him and who was judged delinquent in a juvenile proceeding.
“This 7th grader was marched by the school security officer” out of his classroom and into a windowless room, where he was interrogated in the presence of four adults, including a juvenile investigator and an assistant principal, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out to North Carolina’s attorney general, who was defending the questioning, in part by suggesting that public school students were not typically free to leave classrooms. “That is not a normal part of the school day.” Ginsburg added.
The high court’s conservatives, however, appeared more sympathetic to police officers and the idea that the court’s longstanding Miranda rules offer objective guidance about when a suspect is in custody and must be given the familiar warnings about their rights.
“Sympathetic cases can make bad law,” said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who worried that police officers and judges evaluating their conduct would have to try to put themselves into the mind of a teenager.
The oral arguments in J.D.B. v. North Carolina (Case No. 09-11121) underscored that while the school setting of the interrogation was a significant fact, the legal issue at stake was effectively of importance to the police and the courts. The issue involves whether age should come into consideration when determining whether a youth was in custody and thus entitled to the warnings about constitutional rights under the 1966 Supreme Court case of Miranda v. Arizona.
J.D.B. “was not advised he was free to leave or free not to answer questions until he had already incriminated himself,” Barbara S. Blackman, the youth’s lawyer, told the justices. “If a child is involved in a [custody inquiry], then a court must take that into account.”
J.D.B. was suspected of breaking into several neighborhood homes in Chapel Hill, N.C., and stealing jewelry and a digital camera. He was questioned in a school conference room by a Chapel Hill juvenile-offenses investigator, a uniformed police officer assigned to the middle school, and an assistant principal, who encouraged the boy to “do the right thing, because the truth always comes out in the end.”
The boy confessed to the thefts, and his statement was used against him in a juvenile proceeding in which he was judged to be delinquent.
The North Carolina Supreme Court said that taking the boy’s age and his status as a special education student into account would turn the Miranda custody inquiry into a subjective one, instead of the objective inquiry that the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedents require to guide everyday police work. Under those precedents, the custody inquiry generally turns on whether a “reasonable person” in the suspect’s situation would perceive that he or she was free to leave the police interrogation.
Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s attorney general, told the justices that requiring police officers and courts to take the age of the suspect into consideration “fundamentally changes the ‘reasonable person’ test -- makes it complex, makes it more illogical.”
Justice Stephen G. Breyer asked why it would be such a burden on the police to advise suspects who were obviously minors that they were free to leave before launching into questioning.
Cooper said that would be a problem for the many school resource officers who now patrol school hallways, building relationships with students and often informally questioning them about misconduct or crimes.
“Under [J.D.B.]'s theory, a school resource officer who is going to take a juvenile into a room to talk about a stolen cell phone or bullying, the first thing he’s got to say is, ‘You have the right to remain silent,’” Cooper said.
Eric J. Feigin, an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general who was supporting the state, said, “The main problem here is, is it going to create more confusion for officers” to take age into account?
Justice Antonin Scalia voiced the often-unstated foundation of modern police work: that officers don’t always give Miranda warnings right away when they can avoid it because that would discourage a fair number voluntary confessions to crimes.
Feigin agreed. “You don’t want the police to have to give Miranda warnings every time they open their mouths,” he said.
Two justices who lean conservative were a bit difficult to read at today’s arguments.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wondered whether giving Miranda warnings to youths of J.D.B.'s age or younger “might terrify them.”
And Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted that one object of the court’s Miranda rules was to “provide clear, objective guidelines about what the police are supposed to do.” But he wondered if it was enough to tell a student such as J.D.B. that he was free to leave the school interrogation room.
“Maybe a 13-year-old doesn’t really believe think that’s true,” the chief justice said. “Or maybe a 13-year-old really doesn’t feel that he can leave if he’s got the vice principal there and they want to talk.”
A decision in the case is expected by late June.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.