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High court considers whether age affects ‘Miranda’ rights in NC case

High court considers whether age affects ‘Miranda’ rights in NC case

By KIMBERLY ATKINS, Lawyers USA, the national sister paper of Lawyers Weekly


“You are free to leave” is a statement that seems easy enough to understand. But when those words are told to a young person at school, does the child’s age make a difference under Miranda v. Arizona?

That’s the question the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court considered March 23 during oral arguments in J.D.B v. North Carolina.

The case involves a 13-year-old special education student who was questioned by police at his Chapel Hill middle school about recent burglaries in which a digital camera and jewelry were stolen. The boy was not read his Miranda rights, nor was he told he could speak to a parent or guardian before being questioned.

After the boy denied involvement in the burglaries, police told him to “do the right thing.” The boy then confessed to breaking into houses with another juvenile. Despite being told he was free to leave, the juvenile continued to provide details about the burglary.

He was charged with breaking and entering and larceny.

At trial, the defendant moved to suppress his statement to police as violative of Miranda. The trial court denied the motion and ultimately entered an order adjudicating him delinquent. He appealed the denial of his motion to suppress.

The N.C. Supreme Court held that the boy was not in custody when he made the statement. It rejected the defendant’s argument that age should be considered as a factor in determining whether the suspect was in police custody.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted the juvenile’s petition for certiorari.


Slippery slope?

Barbara S. Blackman, a Durham assistant appellate public defender, said the fact that the child was taken out of class and questioned by police without his parents demonstrates how age impacts a Miranda inquiry.

“The expected deference to authority figures categorically characteristic of children [was] taken advantage of by the manner in which this officer chose to conduct the interrogation,” Blackman said.

But Justice Antonin Scalia asked whether adding age as a Miranda factor would open the door to considering a host of other factors, such as mental deficiency and physical limitations.

“Once you do this, don’t you, in effect, say that it is a subjective inquiry?” Scalia asked. “Why is age different?”

“We’re talking about cognitive differences which exist between children and adults which affects their perception and understanding,” Blackman said.

“You could say both of those things about the mentally deficient,” Scalia said.

“The whole point of the Miranda rule, I thought, was to provide clear, objective guidelines about what the police are supposed to do,” noted Chief Justice John G. Roberts.

“It doesn’t change the rule itself,” Blackman said. “[It’s just] taking this out of the ‘reasonable adult’ standard.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy asked if requiring a Miranda warning might backfire.

“It may be that Miranda warnings – ‘You have a right to remain silent, anything you say can be used against you’ – might terrify the kid just to hear about it,” Kennedy said.

Miranda is the only procedure to date that anyone uses, and constitutionally [children] are entitled to some advisement so that they can make an informed choice,” Blackman said.


‘Hey kid, if you want to leave, go!’

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper argued that adding age as a Miranda factor would change the formula in an unworkable way.

“Age fundamentally changes the reasonable person test, makes it complex, makes it more illogical, with no logical stopping point for adding other characteristics,” Cooper said.

“Why is that big, or a burden on the criminal justice system?” asked Justice Stephen Breyer. “This kid is very young, he might not understand it quite as well, and the officer sees that, the kid sees it, and so the officer has to give him a Miranda warning. … What happens to destroy the criminal justice system?”

“A lot,” Cooper said. “[Before] a school resource officer [takes] a juvenile into a room to talk about a stolen cellphone or bullying, the first thing that he’s got to say is, ‘You have the right to remain silent.’ It disrupts communication.”

“Why isn’t the first thing [that’s said], ‘Hey, kid, if you want to leave, just open the door and leave. Go!’?” Breyer asked.

“Well, he may not want him to go,” Cooper said, drawing a chorus of “Ohhhs” from those watching the argument, indicating their understanding of Cooper’s argument.

“Oh, I see,” Breyer said.

Eric J. Feigin, assistant to the solicitor general, argued as amicus in support of the state that the law need not be changed to protect children.

“The prosecution has carried its burden to prove the statements are voluntary under a voluntariness test that already takes age into account,” Feigin said.

Scalia cut in to help Feigin out.

“Where there’s no coercion, we want confessions, don’t we?” Scalia said. “And the Miranda warnings deter confessions?”

“That’s right,” Feigin said.

“It’s a good thing to have the bad guys confess that they’re bad guys, right?” Scalia said.

“That’s right,” Feigin said. “That’s what I was trying to say earlier.”


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