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Youngster’s talk with cop wasn’t ‘interrogation’

Amy Stevens//February 22, 2013

Youngster’s talk with cop wasn’t ‘interrogation’

Amy Stevens//February 22, 2013

Picture this: A car smashes into an electric pole on the side of the road and three teens are soon seen walking “briskly” in the opposite direction.

Someone is in big trouble.

In this case, the “someone” was 13-year-old Andrew — who quickly confessed to the responding officer that the wrecked car was his mother’s and he was the one at the wheel. A Forsyth County Superior Court placed Andrew on juvenile probation for operating a motor vehicle without a license. Andrew appealed, arguing his statements to police should have been excluded because he was unaccompanied by a parent and also because under the North Carolina automobile investigation statutes — which require cooperation with officers — he was forced to make self-incriminating statements.

Last week the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld the lower court decision, reasoning Andrew was never “under interrogation.”

The case highlights two conflicting matters which have plagued North Carolina defense attorneys for a while — reconciling a person’s Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and the North Carolina statute which requires a person to participate in an automobile-related police investigation.  Muddying the water further in this case is the fact that the defendant is a juvenile.

In a previous case, J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court determined when it comes to Fifth Amendment rights, children should be treated differently than adults. That decision left it to trial courts to determine whether a child being questioned by a uniformed police officer at a possible crime scene felt free to leave or compelled to answer questions.

“A juvenile’s age is relevant both to the Miranda custody analysis and a Fifth Amendment voluntariness analysis,” said defense attorney Mark L. Hayes of Durham. “(Juveniles) are in no position to self-protect and guard their rights. They won’t have the same fortitude to walk away that an adult might have.”

Several cases in recent North Carolina history have dealt with juvenile Miranda rights. The verdicts, while varied depending on the specific facts of each case, have trended in favor of more lenient views of juvenile rights.

“I thought (the trend) was going in a different direction, taking into account the juvenile’s ‘unique susceptibility,’” said Charlotte defense attorney Bill Powers, “but these sorts of cases are fact-specific.”

Challenging the situation further, Powers said, is the automobile investigation law which requires everyone, including unlicensed juveniles like Andrew, to assist police.

“I just don’t see how we reconcile the two (Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and the automobile investigation law). I’ve argued this several times in other adult cases,” he said. “You have the right to remain silent. Most juveniles don’t understand it. In fact, adults know the right exists and still can’t seem to do it.”

But Andrew did have a few wins in the appellate decision. First the court decided there was simply no evidence showing the collision was a result of “careless or reckless driving on Andrew’s part.”

“The mere fact that an unlicensed driver ran off the road and collided with a utility pole does not suffice to establish a violation of North Carolina law,” wrote Judge Sam Ervin IV.

Second, the court found no evidence that Andrew was driving the car in question without his mother’s consent.  “The mere fact that an underaged, unlicensed individual operated a motor vehicle registered to another person does not suffice to establish the required lack of consent,” Ervin wrote.

Despite the outcome of Andrew’s case, Hayes suggested the legal system does offer protection to juveniles.

“It’s my hope as a parent that the structural protections, like the modified Miranda right for juvenile suspects, will protect them. If those mechanisms are working, kids can trust officers without worrying they are surrendering their rights,” he said.

For now, however, it appears those juvenile protections provide little defense when the situation involves an automobile investigation.

“I would have to advise kids to temper what they learned at home or school about respecting officers,” Hayes said. “Don’t be afraid to stay silent or ask for your mom. Just because a uniformed officer runs after you, stops you, and starts asking you questions, don’t assume you have to answer.  He may stand a head taller than you and have a gun, but you shouldn’t feel compelled to respond.”

The 21-page decision is In re A.N.C. (Lawyers Weekly No. 13-07-0112).


An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Mark Hayes as a Greensboro attorney. In fact, Mark L. Hayes practices in Durham.


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