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.

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.

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.

Reversing that decision, the US Supreme Court said the objective standard applied in Miranda cases – whether a reasonable person would feel free to end the questioning – could not apply to the questioning of a child.

“Neither officers nor courts can reasonably evaluate the effect of objective circumstances that, by their nature, are specific to children without accounting for the age of the child subjected to those circumstances,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.

The decision adds: “To hold, as the state requests, that a child’s age is never relevant to whether a suspect has been taken into custody – and thus to ignore the very real differences between children and adults – would be to deny children the full scope of the procedural safeguards that Miranda guarantees to adults.”

Joining Sotomayor in the majority were Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan.

Justice Alito writes dissent

In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said the majority justices were undercutting the clear rule used to help police and courts effectively enforce the Miranda requirements.

“Today’s decision shifts the Miranda custody determination from a one-size-fits-all reasonable-person test into an inquiry that must account for at least one individualized characteristic – age,” Justice Alito said.

He said the court had opened the door to consideration of other personal characteristics like intelligence, education, occupation, and prior experience with law enforcement.

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

Alito’s dissent was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Sotomayor said age may not be a determinative, or even significant, factor in every case. But that age is “a reality that courts cannot simply ignore.”

“Officers and judges need no imaginative powers, knowledge of developmental psychology, training in cognitive science, or expertise in social and cultural anthropology to account for a child’s age,” Sotomayor wrote. “They simply need the common sense to know that a 7-year-old is not a 13-year-old and neither is an adult.”

The decision reversed the ruling of the North Carolina Supreme Court and remanded the case for the lower courts to determine whether JDB was in police custody during his in-school questioning. The lower courts were instructed to take account of “all of the relevant circumstances of the interrogation, including JDB’s age at the time.”

If the courts determine JDB was in custody at the time he made the statements, his confession would be barred from use at trial.

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