The Lawletter Vol 35, No 11, July 29, 2011
Again revisiting the now 45-year-old decision of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), the Supreme Court recently held in a 5-4 decision that police officers must warn children of their Miranda rights in situations in which adults might not be required to be warned. J.D.B. v. North Carolina, No. 09-11121, 2011 WL 2369508 (U.S. June 16, 2011). In a majority decision by the most recently appointed Justice, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Court ruled that children are not just "miniature adults" and that children must be treated differently from adults by police when evaluating whether Miranda warnings are required.
The case arose after a 13-year-old boy was asked by school authorities to leave a classroom to talk to police about a burglary. The boy was interrogated intensely for 30 minutes by two school administrators and two policemen, and he ultimately confessed to the crime. Although the boy was purportedly told during the interrogation that he was free to go, he was also told that he could help himself by being cooperative, and he continued to provide details of the crime after he had been told that he could leave.
When the boy was subsequently prosecuted for the burglary, his attorney argued that the confession was invalid and inadmissible because it had been obtained while the boy was "in custody" for purposes of Miranda but had not been advised of his rights. However, the trial court held otherwise, and its ruling was upheld by the North Carolina Supreme Court in In re J.D.B., 686 S.E.2d 135 (N.C. 2009), which "decline[d] to extend the test for custody to include consideration of the age and academic standing of an individual subjected to questioning by police." Id. at 140.
Sotomayor's majority opinion for the Supreme Court noted that the Court has always required police officers and courts to examine all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, including any circumstance that "'would have affected how a reasonable person in [the suspect's] position would perceive his or her freedom to leave.'" 2011 WL 2369508, at *6 (quoting Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318, 325 (1994)). The majority then concluded that a child's age would indeed affect how a reasonable person in the suspect's position would perceive his or her freedom to leave, because "a reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go." Id. at *7.
Justice Alito wrote a dissenting opinion in which he criticized the majority for adding another factor for police officers to consider when questioning a suspect and for failing to provide any meaningful guidance to lower courts in deciding whether police officers have adequately considered the age of a suspect.