Monday, September 5, 2011

Kids and Confessions


A vast majority of the public knows the term “Miranda rights” because of television and popular culture.  In general, a suspect in a crime must be warned of his rights under Miranda for a statement made in custody to be admissible at trial.  The main thrust of these warnings is that the defendant does not have to say anything and can remain silent.  Prosecutors routinely use Mirandized statements from defendants during the criminal trial of the defendant.

But, does the age of the defendant have any bearing on the Miranda analysis?  In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court says yes.  In the recent case of JDB v. North Carolina, the Court wrestled with the question of whether the defendant’s age should be considered when determining if a person is in custody.  This analysis is important because Miranda rights only apply to suspects who are actually in custody.

The JDB case arose out of police questioning of a 13 year old boy in connection with two burglaries.  The boy was taken from his middle school classroom by a uniformed officer to a school conference room where, behind closed doors, he was questioned for about 45 minutes by a second officer who knew the boy’s age.  The boy finally confessed.

The trial court refused to suppress the confession given by the boy holding that the boy was not in custody at the time of the confession.  The boy’s age was not taken into consideration by the lower court.  Eventually, the case made it to the highest court in the land.

In order for a court to find that a suspect is in custody, the court must look at the circumstances surrounding the interrogation and then ask whether a reasonable person would have felt free to leave.  The Supreme Court has now ruled that when dealing with children, the age of the child must be considered.

The majority of the Court stressed that children are not “miniature adults” and that 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.  “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”.

This is a pretty interesting and important case for a couple of reasons.  First, this is one of the first federal cases that I am aware of that directly deals with the application of Miranda rights to juvenile offenders.  Secondly, the facts of this case surround an interrogation at a school as opposed to a police department interrogation room.  This is a key development in juvenile law because the opinion seems to suggest that a child can easily be placed into custody while at school.  Many of the juvenile court cases that I have worked on have stemmed from interrogations taking place on school property.

Its also a decision based on common sense.  If a court must consider circumstances such as the intelligence of the defendant, the defendant’s surroundings, the officer’s demeanor etc. in determining whether or not someone is in custody, why should their age be ignored.  Would a 10 year old child feel the same freedom to walk away from a police officer as a 40 year old man? 

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