Law & Courts

Justices Appear Divided on In-School Questionings

By Mark Walsh — March 29, 2011 6 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court appeared sharply divided last week in a case over the constitutional rights of youths in the context of a police interrogation at school, the second case to be argued this year involving the in-school questioning of students.

Separately, the high court also heard arguments last week in a case involving the grievance rights of public employees, including teachers, under the First Amendment’s clause about petitioning the government.

The student-interrogation case, argued March 23, revolves around a 13-year-old North Carolina special education student suspected of committing neighborhood thefts.

The court’s more liberal members aggressively challenged the circumstances surrounding the 2005 interrogation of the boy, identified as J.D.B., who was not given a Miranda warning but whose statements were used against him in a juvenile proceeding that found him to be delinquent.

“This 7th grader was marched by the school security officer, taken away from his peers, from his class [and] put in a room with a closed door with the assistant principal” and other adults, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said during oral arguments in J.D.B. v. North Carolina (Case No. 09-11121). “That is not a normal part of the school day.”

Conservatives on the high court, however, said the police need objective guidance, not based on subjective factors such as maturity, about when suspects are in custody and must be given the familiar warnings about their rights under the 1966 Supreme Court case of Miranda v. Arizona.

“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 child or teenager.

The oral arguments underscored that while the school setting of the interrogation was significant, the legal issue at stake was effectively of greater importance to the police and the courts than to school administrators.

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 public defender, told the justices. “If a child is involved in a [custody inquiry], then a court must take that into account.”

‘Reasonable Person’ Test

The youth was suspected of breaking into several neighborhood homes in Chapel Hill, N.C., 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 youth sought to suppress his statements because he had not received a Miranda warning. But the North Carolina Supreme Court said that taking the boy’s age 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.

Mr. 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 cellphone or bullying, the first thing he’s got to say is, ‘You have the right to remain silent,’ ” Mr. Cooper said.

The Obama administration supported the state, with Eric J. Feigin, an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general, arguing that taking age into account is “going to cause more confusion for officers because it’s another factor they have to put into the test.”

Justice Antonin Scalia voiced an often-unstated foundation of modern police work: Officers don’t always give Miranda warnings right away when they can avoid doing so because that would discourage some voluntary criminal confessions.

Mr. Feigin agreed. “You don’t want the police to have to give Miranda warnings every time they open their mouths,” he said.

Justice Alito called Miranda “a relatively simple objective test” that might be undermined by requiring age or other subjective factors to be considered.

But Justice Elena Kagan, who appeared sympathetic to the youth, called Miranda “an incredibly complicated test” and said that adding an “objective” inquiry about a suspect’s age would not be that burdensome.

One justice who may hold the decisive vote in the case was difficult to read at last week’s arguments.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wondered whether traditional Miranda warnings might “terrify” minors and whether Ms. Blackman’s position would require a new set of warnings tailored to younger suspects. But he also pressed Mr. Cooper on whether a minor fits the “reasonable person” definition.

“When we construct a ‘reasonable man,’ you’re asking me to think of a 25-year-old sitting in a 7th grade social studies class,” Justice Kennedy said. “That’s a little hard for me to imagine.”

Public-Employee Case

The public-employee case, Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri (No. 09-1476) is about whether the First Amendment’s petition clause provides any stronger protection for workplace grievances than the free-speech clause, which the high court has curtailed in recent years for public workers’ speech on matters of private concern or job-related communications.

The petition clause says Congress shall not abridge the people’s right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The question for the justices seemed to be whether the petition clause might turn every workplace grievance in a public agency into a constitutional case.

Underlying the case are the Supreme Court’s rulings on public-employee free speech, such as Pickering v. Board of Education, the 1968 case that held that a teacher could not be dismissed for speaking out publicly on a matter of public concern, and Connick v. Myers, a 1983 case that said a survey about working conditions circulated in a district attorney’s office was not protected because it was a matter of personal interest, not public concern.

Eric Schnapper, a University of Washington law professor who is representing a small-town Pennsylvania police chief who sued his employer under the petition clause, told the justices on March 22 that the free-speech and petition clauses serve different purposes.

“The petition clause was not adopted, like the free-speech clause, to foster a vigorous public debate,” he said. “The purpose of the petition clause ... is to enable an individual to seek relief for a wrong.”

The Pennsylvania borough was supported by the Obama administration, which argued that there is a critical difference between petitioning the government as a sovereign power and petitioning it as an employer.

“In that latter situation, Connick has been critical in providing a bulwark against allowing run-of-the-mill employment disputes from becoming constitutional cases in federal court,” said Joseph R. Palmore, an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general.

The National School Boards Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the borough and arguing that a decision for the police chief could “wreak havoc” on relationships between schools and their employees.

Decisions in both cases are expected by late June.

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as Interrogation-Case Arguments Reveal Divided High Court

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