Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: Age matters for Miranda

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
June 24, 2011

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the police must consider a juvenile’s age when determining whether to provide Miranda warnings. The decision inserted a subjective component into the long accepted objective standard that Miranda applies only when a person subject to questioning has been deemed in police custody.
In North Carolina, a police officer took a 13-year-old boy, J. D. B., from his classroom to a closed-door conference room, where police and school administrators questioned him about a burglary.
He was not given Miranda warnings or the opportunity to call his legal guardian, nor was he told he was free to leave the room.
During questioning, in the presence of the assistant principal, J.D.B. was urged to tell the truth and told about the prospect of juvenile detention. After a partial confession he was informed that he could refuse to answer further questions and was free to leave. He made a full confession.
J.D.B.'s attorney moved to suppress his statements due to the lack of Miranda warnings. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed. Justice Sonia Sotomayor writing for a 5-4 majority found, “The law has historically reflected the same assumption that children characteristically lack the capacity to exercise mature judgment and possess only an incomplete ability to understand the world around them … It is beyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave.” The High Court held, "Seeing no reason for police officers or courts to blind themselves to that commonsense reality, we hold that a child's age properly informs the Miranda custody analysis."
What 13-year-old believes he is free to leave the assistant principal’s office, let alone an office occupied by a uniformed police officer?
Joseph E. Kennedy wrote in The News and Observer, “Only in some strange sort of alternate universe could you ask whether a reasonable person in J.D.B.’s situation would have felt free to leave without distinguishing between children and adults. Adults don't get called to the principal's office. Justice Sotomayor described as nonsensical and absurd the idea that you could do a Miranda custody analysis in J.D.B's case or in many other juvenile cases without considering age .”
The decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina leaves unanswered whether a child being confined to the principal's office for purposes of questioning by police is in fact, what it appears to be, a custodial interrogation.

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