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Opinion analysis: Children’s age and Miranda


Repeatedly citing “common sense” as its guiding light, a closely divided Supreme Court ruled Thursday that police must take into account the age of a youth they are going to question, in order to decide whether to warn the boy or girl about their constitutional rights — including the right to remain silent.   The Court majority, speaking at length about the vulnerability of children, insisted it was not abandoning the simplicity of the “Miranda warnings”  requirement.  Still, it did not answer all the questions that its ruling may raise in the minds of police officers dealing with a youthful suspect.  Answers may have to come as lower courts apply the new ruling, issued in J.D.B. v. North Carolina (09-11121).

Basically, what the Court did was to add to the Miranda equation a requirement that, if an officer knows at the time the actual age of the youth the police are about to question, or a suspect’s young age would have been apparent at the time, the officer must take that into account in deciding for or against a rights warning.   The Court did not say at what young age warnings would have to be given, nor did it say just how the officer was to translate a conclusion about a suspect’s age into a decision to give — or not to give — warnings.

But, because the Court dwelled so strongly on children’s inability to withstand coercion, the practical effect of the ruling may be that officers, to be on the safe side legally, would give warnings to any suspect who does not appear to be close to age 18.

The J.D.B. ruling would have its first impact on the practices that police departments adopt.  Then, the ruling would be applied as cases involving youths get into the state and federal courts, judging whether warnings should have been given.

The dissenting Justices complained that the Court had seriously complicated the Miranda equation, calling the decision “an extreme makeover” of the requirement first imposed in the 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona –  a requirement that has become so commonplace that it is now a standard fixture of TV and movies about cops, as well as in the everyday work of real police.  In the future, the dissenters contended, the Court will have to decide what other “personal characteristics” might make a suspect susceptible to coercion by police, or else adopt an “arbitrary” line that only age counts, but with even that resulting in a highly fact-intensive puzzle for police and judges.

The test the Court adopted here, the dissent said, “will be hard for the police to follow, and it will be hard for judges to apply,” partly because “today’s opinion contains not a word of actual guidance” for its application.

Technically, the decision turned not on an abstract notion of when warnings had to be given, but on a more real-world question: when is a suspect to be considered to be “in custody” in a police encounter?  Under Miranda and sequel decisions, rights warnings do not have to be given unless a suspect is “in custody,” and that turns on whether the individual has actually been formally arrested, or is put in a position where he or she does not feel free to get up and leave.  The Court concluded that, in deciding whether a youth was “in custody,” officers had to consider age — if it was known or apparent at the time.   (Incidentally, given the Court’s closely confined focus on the special attributes of children — “children cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults” — police do not need to consider the age of an old person who might seem vulnerable, although some surely do.)

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Elena Kagan.  Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., wrote the dissent, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.  That was a customary lineup of the more liberal Justices on one side and the more conservative ones on the other, with centrist Kennedy casting the deciding vote — this time, with the liberals.

The Sotomayor opinion sought to counter the foreboding of the Alito dissent, insisting that the Court was not inviting police to look at any personal characteristic of “meekness” or insecurity other than young age, that it was not saying that a child’s age would be the decisive factor in every case where giving or not giving warnings was at issue, that it would not be a difficult thing for police to figure out that the suspect they are about to question is a child, and that the bottom line of the ruling was simply that young age could not be totally left out of the custody calculus.

“Common sense” and “community experience,” Sotomayor wrote, make it possible for adults to understand objectively what is to be expected of children in a variety of different situations, and so it is also possible to do so with “children subjected to police questioning.”

Taking the actual case before it as an example (a 13-year-old, questioned by a officer in uniform behind a closed door at school, with the principal on hand telling the boy to do the right thing), the Court majority said it would not make any sense to leave completely out of account the boy’s young age.  If his youth were simply not considered at all, “how would a reasonable person understand his situation…?  To describe such an inquiry is to demonstrate its absurdity,” the majority said.

The Court, in the end, did not decide whether the Chapel Hill, N.C., youth involved — identified in papers only as “J.D.B.” — actually was in custody during the meeting with police and others at his public school in September 2005.   The decision ordered the case sent back to state courts to decide whether, in view of all of the circumstances at the age — including his age then — he would have felt free to get up and walk out of the room.

After the interview, J.D.B. was charged with two counts of breaking and entering and two counts of larceny, all involving entry and theft of household or personal items from homes in the boy’s neighborhood.  He confessed, soon after the questioning officer had threatened him with detention in a juvenile facility.  At his trial, his lawyers sought to have his confession barred from evidence, on the theory that he had not been given Miranda warnings.  That challenge was rejected in state courts, up to and including the state Supreme Court, which said that his youth was not to be considered as a factor on whether he was entitled to such warnings as a person “in custody.”  The boy was ruled formally to be a delinquent.

Although he is now an adult, he could benefit from a ruling that his confession had to be excluded because he gave it without being told about his rights.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Opinion analysis: Children’s age and Miranda, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 16, 2011, 11:18 AM),