Law & Courts

Supreme Court Backs Youths’ Miranda Rights

By Mark Walsh — June 16, 2011 6 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Thursday that a child’s age can be a relevant factor when determining whether a juvenile suspect merits a Miranda warning about his rights against self-incrimination.

The court ruled in the case of a North Carolina student who was 13 years old in 2005 when police questioned him at school about a series of neighborhood thefts. They used his statements against him in court, where he was found delinquent.

The question for the high court was whether the police must take age into account in determining whether the juvenile suspect is in custody, and thus entitled to the familiar warnings from the 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona. The case does not implicate routine school disciplinary matters between students and administrators.

“We hold that 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,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court in J.D.B. v. North Carolina (Case No. 09-11121).

The opinion was joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Elena Kagan,

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote a dissent stressing that the court was complicating the Miranda analysis faced by the police. And he suggested that accounting for the “unique circumstances” present when the police interrogate minors at school would address the vulnerability of youth suspects.

“Safeguarding the constitutional rights of minors does not require the extreme makeover of Miranda that today’s decision may portend,” Alito said.

The dissent was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Neighborhood Thefts

The boy identified as J.D.B. was a middle school student in Chapel Hill, N.C., when the police arrived to question him about a series of thefts in neighborhood homes. The police, who had evidence to suggest J.D.B. had stolen a digital camera and jewelry, went to his school. The boy was pulled from his social studies class and escorted to a conference room, where he was interrogated by the police in presence of the school’s assistant principal and an administrative intern. At one point, the assistant principal urged J.D.B. to “do the right thing” because “the truth always comes out in the end.”

Only after J.D.B. confessed to the break-ins did the police officer inform him he could refuse to answer questions and that he was free to leave.

The boy was charged in juvenile court with breaking and entering and larceny. A trial court refused to suppress his confession, ruling that J.D.B. was not in police custody during the school interrogation and thus no Miranda warning was required.

The North Carolina Supreme Court also ruled against him, holding 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 Miranda and later rulings, the custody inquiry generally turns on whether a reasonable person in the suspect’s situation would perceive that he was free to leave the police interrogation.

Police Analysis

Although the circumstances of J.D.B.'s interrogation at school are the foundation for Thursday’s decision, the Supreme Court ruling will require the police to take age into account whenever they are dealing with a juvenile suspect.

“A reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go,” Justice Sotomayor said in her opinion. “We think it clear that courts can account for that reality without doing any damage to the objective nature of the custody analysis.”

She said it was “nonsensical” to think that in many cases involving juvenile suspects that age could not be integral to the custody analysis.

“A student—whose presences at school is compulsory and whose disobedience at school is cause for disciplinary action—is in a far different position than, say, a parent volunteer on school grounds to chaperone an event,” Sotomayor said. “With asking whether the person questioned in school is a minor, the coercive effect of the schoolhouse setting is unknowable.”

The court reversed J.D.B.'s delinquency finding and sent the case back to the North Carolina state courts so they could determine whether the boy was in custody at the time of the interrogation, this time taking his age into account.

In his dissent, Justice Alito worried that permitting age to be taken into account in the Miranda custody analysis could lead to a slippery slope in which future rulings might require the police to take other factors into account, such as a suspect’s intelligence level or educational attainment.

“Why, for example, is age different from intelligence?” Alito said. “Suppose that an officer, upon going to a school to question a student, is told by the principal that the student has an I.Q. of 75 and is in a special-education class. Are those facts more or less important than the student’s age in determining whether he or she felt at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave?”

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

Although the opinions don’t mention it, it bears emphasis that the Miranda custody analysis does not apply to interactions between school administrators and students. So, the new ruling should not result in students demanded their Miranda rights before being suspended or expelled for violations of school rules. (There was some concern about this during oral argument in the case.)

Megan Miller, a North Carolina lawyer who helped write a friend-of-the-court brief on the state’s side for the National District Attorneys Association, said that “without a doubt, this is going to make the job of the police tougher.”

“This isn’t a bright-line rule that if the [suspect] is under 18, they have to give a Miranda warning,” Miller said. “They will have to gauge the specifics of the situation. Sometimes the police will get it right and sometimes they won’t.”

Marsha Levick, the deputy director and legal counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said the decision follows the Supreme Court’s pattern of recognizing that minors are more vulnerable to coercion than adults.

“I think Justice Sotomayor was clear in her tone,” said Levick, whose center filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of J.D.B. “For her, the decision wasn’t only steeped in the law, and in the research, but it was steeped in common sense.”

While the legal issue is one more for the police and courts that review their actions, Levick said, there are lessons in the decision for school administrators.

“To the extent that administrators are going to cooperate with or invite the police into the school setting, I do think that they need to recognize that students have special rights with regard to custodial settings,” she said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.