By Taylor Sisk
In a decision on a case it heard in March involving a Chapel Hill middle-schooler, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last Thursday that age should be a factor in determining if itâ€™s necessary to read suspects their Miranda rights.
In her 5-4 majority opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that it is â€œbeyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave,â€ and that police or the courts shouldnâ€™t â€œblind themselves to that commonsense reality.â€
The case, J.D.B. v. North Carolina, began Sept. 29, 2005 at Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill, when a seventh-grade special-education student, identified today only as J.D.B., was taken out of his social studies class and interrogated in a conference room by a Chapel Hill Police investigator concerning some residential break-ins. Three other adults, including the school resource officer and assistant principal, were present. The door was closed but not locked.
J.D.B. confessed to a break-in, but did so without having been read his Miranda rights (â€œYou have the right to remain silent â€¦â€). The authorities argued that J.D.B. was free to leave at any time, and that they thus werenâ€™t required to read him his rights.
J.D.B.â€™s attorney countered that the youth couldnâ€™t reasonably have been expected to think he could walk away from two uniformed police officers and two school officials. The courts, including the state Supreme Court, disagreed, ruling that he had confessed voluntarily.
The Supreme Court didnâ€™t rule on Thursday whether J.D.B. was in custody, sending the case back to the state courts to address that question, this time taking into account J. D. B.â€™s age at the time.
Sotomayor argued that the court has in the past upheld that being in custody is an â€œobjective inquiryâ€ determined by whether a reasonable person would have felt at liberty to leave.
â€œThe benefit of the objective custody analysis is that it is â€˜designed to give clear guidance to the police,â€™â€ Sotomayor wrote, quoting a previous ruling.
The objective inquiry frees police from â€œanticipating the idiosyncrasies of every individual suspect and divining how those particular traits affect each personâ€™s subjective state of mind.â€
But, she continued, a child subjected to questioning will sometimes feel pressured to talk when an adult would decline.
â€œWe think it clear that courts can account for that reality without doing any damage to the objective nature of the custody analysis,â€ Sotomayor wrote.
Someone they arenâ€™t
According to the law, custodial interrogation is questioning by law-enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.
If a reasonable person feels he is free to go, heâ€™s not in custody, and neednâ€™t be read his rights.
In presenting J.D.B.â€™s case before the court in March, Assistant Appellate Defender Barbara Blackman argued that there are cognitive differences between children and adults, and that in failing to consider age when deciding whether to read the Miranda warning â€œwe are requiring these children to be someone that they never could be, and that is reasonable adults.â€
On Thursday, Sotomayor concluded that â€œofficers and judges need no imaginative powers â€¦ or expertise in social and cultural anthropology to account for a childâ€™s age. They simply need the common sense to know that a 7-year-old is not a 13-year-old and neither is an adult.â€
In his dissent, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that, â€œIf Mirandaâ€™s rigid, one-size-fits-all standards fail to account for the unique needs of juveniles, the response should be to rigorously apply the constitutional rule against coercion to ensure that the rights of minors are protected. There is no need to run Miranda off the rails.â€
State Attorney General Roy Cooper, who argued the stateâ€™s case before the Supreme Court, issued a brief statement: â€œLaw enforcement needed a definite answer on whether they must consider age for Miranda purposes and now we know they do.Â Officers need clear standards when questioning witnesses and it will be important for future Courts to keep this ruling narrow.â€
â€œThis is a great victory in that the Supreme Court recognized that as far as Miranda warnings go, juveniles are different. Our criminal justice system has always recognized that, and has treated them differently,â€ said Mark Dorosin of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, who filed a brief in support of J.D.B. â€œThis ruling reaffirms that understanding.â€
Sotomayor was joined in her opinion by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Anthony Kennedy. Alito was joined by Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.