How should police read teen suspects their rights?

The case of a 17-year-old before the Supreme Court could result in a special Miranda rule for juveniles.

The US Supreme Court is in the midst of what could become a major reassessment of the rules surrounding when police must give Miranda warnings to criminal suspects.

In broad terms, the high court is being asked to decide whether police may deliberately delay reading Miranda warnings until an incriminating statement or evidence has already been obtained.

The court has heard three cases this term involving such efforts by police. Monday, the justices take up a fourth. In Yarborough v. Alvarado, the court will consider whether juveniles are entitled to more prompt Miranda warnings than adults.

The issue arises in the case of Michael Alvarado, who was convicted of second-degree murder for his alleged role in a 1995 killing in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Mr. Alvarado, who was not the triggerman, was convicted in large part as a result of incriminating statements he made about his involvement in the shooting during a two-hour interview with a police detective roughly a month after the murder. Alvarado was a 17-year-old high school student at the time.

The detective contacted Alvarado's mother and arranged for him to be brought to the police station for questioning. When Alvarado arrived with his parents, the detective denied the parents' request to remain with their son during the interview. Instead, Alvarado was questioned alone.

The two-hour session was tape-recorded, but at no time was Alvarado advised that he had a right to remain silent, a right to consult a lawyer prior to answering, or even the right to leave the police station at any time since he was not under arrest.

Arguments for Alvarado

Lawyers for Alvarado say juveniles should be treated more deferentially than adults because of their age and lack of experience with police. "The law has long given controlling weight to juvenile status in innumerable legal contexts, including interrogation because it creates a vulnerability repeatedly noted by this court as requiring additional care and concern in police-citizen interactions," says Alvarado's lawyer, Tara Allen, in her brief to the court.

The California Attorney General's Office and the US solicitor general have a different view. The key issue that triggers the requirement to give a Miranda warning is whether Alvarado was "in custody" at the time of the police interview, not the suspect's age or level of experience with police, says Deborah Jane Chuang, a California deputy attorney general, in her brief to the court.

Miranda warnings stem from a 1966 landmark case, Miranda v. Arizona, which mandated that police must warn a criminal suspect of his rights at the time the suspect is taken into custody. Under the Miranda decision if police fail to give the warning, any statements made to police prior to the warning must be barred from use as evidence.

But here's the catch: Miranda warnings are only required for questioning done once a suspect has been taken into custody "or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way," according to the Miranda opinion.

Alvarado was not under arrest. But Miranda warnings could still be required under a somewhat broader test: Would a reasonable person in Alvarado's position feel free to end the police interview at any point and walk out of the police station?

If the answer is yes, then no Miranda warnings were necessary. If the answer is no, police should have given Alvarado the warnings, and any statements he made - including a full confession - may not be used as evidence against Alvarado.

Applying this test, a federal judge rejected Alvarado's claim. But a federal appeals court panel reversed, saying that as a juvenile Alvarado should have received the Miranda warnings.

The case is important because, if the high court agrees with Alvarado, it would establish for the first time a special Miranda rule for juveniles.

Juvenile-justice experts have long emphasized that teens are developmentally different than adults and should be treated differently in the criminal justice system. "Minors are generally less mature, more submissive in the face of police authority, and lack critical knowledge and experience, as compared to adults," says Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, in a friend-of-the-court brief.

A similar argument about the developmental differences of juveniles is being made in a Missouri case challenging the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty. The high court has agreed to decide that case, which is likely to be heard next term.

Ms. Levick says the circumstances of the police encounter in the Alvarado case were critically different for a 17-year-old than for someone even slightly older. "The reason age matters is because the 18- or 19- or 20-year-old would not have had his parents called to act as the intermediary with police," Levick says.

Harder for police

Both California and the Solicitor General's Office say that a new Miranda rule for juveniles would complicate law-enforcement efforts, making it harder to solve certain crimes. "An overly broad Miranda rule for juveniles would potentially exclude free and voluntary confessions deserving of the highest credit," writes Ms. Chuang.

The justices could sidestep the juvenile Miranda question altogether should a majority conclude that the federal appeals court decision in the Alvarado case violated the terms of the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

That law limits the ability of federal courts to second-guess state court judgments to only the extremely rare cases in which state judges blatantly ignore well-established Supreme Court precedents. Alvarado's case was prosecuted in state court and was appealed to the federal level on habeas corpus grounds.

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