Suspect’s Age Relevant when Issuing Miranda Warnings

On June 16, 2011, in a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court of the United States expanded the protections provided by the landmark case, Miranda v. Arizona. The familiar phrase, “You have the right to remain silent,” is one of several warnings mandated by Miranda to protect the 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination from coercive police questioning.  Police are required to give Miranda warnings before a custodial interrogation. To determine whether an interrogation is custodial, the court employs an objective test: based on the circumstances surrounding the interrogation would a reasonable person have felt he or she was not at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave? In the years following Miranda, the Court determined that age should not be considered because the custody inquiry states an objective rule designed to give clear guidance to the police, but consideration of a suspect’s individual characteristics – including age – could be viewed as a creating a subjective inquiry. However, in J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the court overruled the bright line rule against the consideration of a suspect’s age, and held that age is a relevant factor in the Miranda custody analysis.

In J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court considered the question of whether the age of a child subjected to police questioning is relevant to the Miranda custody analysis.  J.D.B., a 13-year-old, seventh grade student, was questioned by police while at school about a string of neighborhood burglaries. Upon learning that the boy was in possession of a digital camera that had been reported stolen, he was removed from his classroom by a uniformed police officer and escorted to a school conference room where he was interrogated by the officers in the presence of school officials. Before beginning the questioning, they did not give him Miranda warnings, or the opportunity to call his grandmother. He first denied his involvement, but later confessed after the officers urged him to tell the truth and warned him about the prospect of juvenile detention. J.D.B. was charged with breaking and entering and larceny. J.D.B. later sought to have his confession suppressed on the basis that he was never read his Miranda rights. He argued that because he was effectively in police custody when he incriminated himself, he was entitled to Miranda protections. The North Carolina Supreme Court held that it could not consider the boy’s age in determining whether he was in custody, and because he was not in custody, he was not entitled to Miranda warnings.

On review, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the lower court ruling in an opinion delivered by Justice Sotomayor.  The majority held that “so long as the child’s age was known to the officer at the time of police questioning, or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, its inclusion in the custody analysis is consistent with the objective nature of the test.” The Court reasoned that custodial police interrogations entail inherently compelling pressures, and these risks are “all the more acute when the subject of the interrogation is a juvenile…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. [There is] no reason for police officers or courts to blind themselves to that commonsense reality.” In addition, the Court stressed that children are generally less mature and responsible than adults; they often lack experience, perspective, and judgment to recognize and avoid choices that could be detrimental to them; and are more vulnerable or susceptible to outside pressures than adults. Because childhood yields these objective conclusions, police and the courts can consider age without doing any damage to the objective nature of the custody analysis because it does not involve a determination of how youth affects a particular child’s subjective state of mind.

Justice Alito issued a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas concluding that the majority holding, “is fundamentally inconsistent with one of the main justifications for the Miranda rule: the perceived need for a clear rule that can be easily applied in all cases.” Alito is concerned the majority’s rationale will be used to extend custody considerations to include other individual characteristics, like education or alienage, causing Miranda to lose its clarity and ease of application. The majority rejects the dissenting arguments by concluding that “to hold…that a child’s age is never relevant to whether a suspect has been taken into custody – and thus to ignore the real difference between children and adults – would be to deny children the full scope of the procedural safeguards that Miranda guarantees to adults.” On remand, the state court will determine if J.D.B. was in custody, taking into account all relevant circumstances, including J.D.B.’s age at the time.

Miller|Conway is a Goose Creek law firm serving the Greater Charleston area. If you or someone you know is a defendant in a criminal action please call one of our attorneys at +843.764.3334 for a free consultation.