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Supreme Court: When police question children, their age matters

In the case of a 7th-grader who confessed to break-ins, the Supreme Court ruled that police need to consider a child's age when deciding when to issue Miranda warnings.

By Staff writer / June 16, 2011


Law enforcement officials must take into consideration the age of a child when deciding at what point to issue Miranda warnings during police questioning, the US Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

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In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court said such special consideration is warranted when police seek to interrogate a child because children are less able to assert their right to end the encounter or even understand the full significance of the confrontation with police.

“A reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the majority opinion.

The decision establishes a new rule for police when they seek to question an individual who appears to be a minor.

Police routinely attempt to convince the subject of an investigation to freely answer their questions. They prefer to gather as much information as possible prior to issuing Miranda warnings – the required advisory statements that anything you say can be used against you in court, that you have a right to remain silent, and a right to consult an attorney.

Police prefer to question subjects prior to Miranda warnings because some subjects heed those warnings and refuse to talk.

When subjects do talk to police prior to any Miranda warnings, any statements later introduced in court are often challenged by a defense lawyer on the basis that the subject felt he or she was in police custody at the time and that the statements were coerced rather than voluntary.

That’s the central issue in JDB v. North Carolina (09-11121). The underlying case involves a 13-year-old, seventh grade student who was attending a middle school in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Police were investigating break-ins in local homes. They had heard that a digital camera taken from one of the homes had been found at the middle school and was seen in JDB’s possession.

No Miranda warning given

The boy was removed from his social studies class by a uniformed police officer. He was then escorted to a closed-door conference room and questioned for 30 minutes by two police officers, the assistant principal, and an administrative intern. JDB was not given Miranda warnings, or permitted to call his grandmother, who was his legal guardian.

During the course of the questioning, JDB confessed that he and a friend had conducted the break-ins. He told police the location of the stolen items and provided a written statement.

Juvenile petitions were filed against JDB and he was later adjudicated delinquent.

At trial, his lawyer sought to prevent use of his confession. The trial judge denied the motion. That ruling was affirmed by a state appeals court and the North Carolina Supreme Court, which held JDB was not in police custody when he confessed and that his age was not important to the objective determination of whether he was in custody.


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