Supreme Court Rules Children Must Be Treated as Children by Police

Last Updated: July 29, 2011

This article appeared in the July 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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A decision announced last month by the U.S. Supreme Court in J. D. B. v. North Carolina will force police officers to consider age when determining whether to inform a juvenile suspect of his or her Miranda rights.

Miranda rights, including the rights to remain silent and to legal counsel, protect individuals from self-incrimination. Federal law requires police officers to inform individuals of their Miranda rights prior to any interrogation when the individual is under arrest or otherwise in police custody. Statements made by suspects who have not been informed of these rights are generally not admissible in court. However, police are not required to inform individuals of their Miranda rights when the person being questioned is not in custody and understands that he or she is free to leave. This custodial interrogationtest is intended to be an objective standard for when the Miranda warnings should be read.

At issue in J. D. B. was whether age was relevant in determining if a 13-year old student was in custody when he was questioned by police in his school and if the student could have understood he was free to leave during the questioning, The student was subsequently convicted based on his confession.

J.D.B., who received special education services at school, was pulled from his 7th grade classroom by a uniformed police officer assigned to the school. The office escorted J,D,B, to a closed-door conference room where he was interrogated about his role in local burglaries by a police investigator, assistant principal, and two school officials. He was not told that he was free to leave, did not receive Miranda warnings, and his guardian grandmother was not contacted prior to the closed-door interview.

Near the end of the interview, J.D.B was told he could be placed in juvenile detention. He subsequently confessed to having participated in the break-ins with a friend. He was only then told that he could refuse to answer further questions and was free leave. He continued to cooperate with police, and upon request, made a written statement. At the end of the school day he was permitted to catch the bus home.

J.D.B was then charged with breaking and entering and larceny. His public defender moved to suppress his statements at school on the grounds that he was in custody and not informed of his rights. The motion was denied and J.D.B was adjudicated delinquent. Upon appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court declined to find that J.D.B.’s age was relevant to the determination of whether he was in police custody. RPM covered the case, and the decision of the North Carolina Supreme Court here.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, overturned the North Carolina Supreme Court decision that the police properly omitted the Miranda warning because J.D.B. was not in a custodial interrogation.

The majority opinion held that the police should have considered J.D.B.’s age in the context of the interview, because as a child, he would likely not known or felt he was free to leave. Sotomayor wrote: “Given a history “replete with laws and judicial recognition” that children cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults, there is no justification for taking a different course here.”

Further, the opinion cites research that a high percentage of false confessions are made by juveniles and notes that generally, the Court has recognized that children are more vulnerable to pressure than adults. In addition, it explicitly recognizes the influence of the school context. Sotomayor writes: “A student — whose presence 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, or an adult from the community on school grounds to attend a basketball game. Without asking whether the person “questioned in school” is a “minor,” …the coercive effect of the schoolhouse setting is unknowable.

Finally, the opinion directs the use of common sense without prescribing specific guidelines to use when questioning children.

Police, prosecutors, and juvenile justice advocates have suggested that police will now likely err on the side of caution by giving Miranda warnings to youth being questioned.

Eugene O'Donnell, a former police officer, prosecutor, defense counsel, and now a professor of criminal justice said in an interview with National Public Radio that the case gives a “real world” look at how police operate. Pointing to the facts of this case, he said that the police investigator "took great pains to orchestrate an environment where he would not have to give the Miranda warnings."

Many youth justice advocates have called the practice of using the school setting for police questioning as a way to avoid Miranda warnings a “loophole” in the custodial interrogation test

The ruling is especially important because police questioning of students in school has risen dramatically in recent years as schools have increasingly referred routine misbehavior to the justice system and as the number of school resource officers (police officers stationed in schools) has increased. By some estimates, there are now between 14 and 15,000 resource officers working in schools.

The dissent in J.D.B., authored by Justice Samuel Alito, said that the ruling was neither modest nor sensible. Referring in part to the custodial interrogation test, he wrote that the decision blurs “the objective lines of Miranda.” And he wrote: “Safeguarding the constitutional rights of minors does not require the extreme makeover of Miranda that today’s decision may portend.”

The case will now be remanded to the state court to determine whether J.D.B. was in custody while being questioned, and as a result, whether his confession can be used to convict him.

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Read more from the July 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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