High Court Rules Children have Rights! Police Must Inform Kids They Don't Have to Talk to the Police Officers
The U.S. Supreme Court has broadened use of the Miranda warning for suspects, extending it to children questioned by police in school. By a 5-to-4 vote, the court said for the first time on Thursday that age must be considered in determining whether a suspect is aware of his or her rights.
This case, involving a 13-year-old North Carolina boy identified only as J.D.B., will likely change police practices across the country. Experts say that police questioning, particularly in school, can no longer be presumed to be legally permissible without advising a youngster of his or her rights.
J.D.B., a special-education seventh grader, was pulled out of his classroom by a uniformed officer and escorted to a conference room where he faced a police investigator, the assistant principal and two other school officials.
For more than half an hour, the investigator interrogated J.D.B. about a string of local burglaries. The boy's legal guardian, his grandmother, was never contacted, and he was not given a Miranda warning — the warnings routinely given by police to criminal suspects once they are taken into custody.
While the police officer later told J.D.B. that he was free to leave, he also told the boy that the police could get a court order to put him in juvenile detention, and the school's assistant principal advised the boy to "do the right thing."
J.D.B. eventually confessed, and helped police recover the stolen items. At trial, his lawyer tried to get the confession thrown out on the grounds that given J.D.B.'s age and the circumstances of the interrogation, the confession was, in essence, coerced, and that the boy should have been advised of his right to an attorney and to remain silent. The state countered that the boy had been free to leave, that he, therefore, was not in custody, and that age should not be considered in determining whether police warn suspects of their rights. The North Carolina courts agreed.
But on Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time ruled that the age of a child subjected to police questioning is relevant. Writing for the five-member court majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said there is "no reason for police officers or courts to blind themselves to [the] commonsense reality" that "children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances" would not. Indeed, Sotomayor said that a student required by law to attend school, and who is subject to disciplinary action for disobedience, might well believe that he or she must answer all police questions.
"Our history is replete with laws and judicial recognition that children cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults," said Sotomayor, concluding that because children are different — less mature, less capable of judgment and more susceptible to influence — police and judges must consider age in determining whether a child should have been advised of his or her legal rights.
Joining her in the majority were Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the dissent for the court's four most conservative justices. The dissenters said, essentially, that the beauty of the Miranda rule is that it is simple and objective. A suspect must be Mirandized once he is in police custody — in short, when he cannot leave. Thursday's ruling, wrote Alito, "blurs" that line and "is fundamentally at odds" with the clarity of the Miranda rule.
Reaction to the decision was mixed, but police, prosecutors and juvenile justice advocates alike said the decision would require police in many places to revamp their practices in dealing with juveniles.
"The pressure" on police now "is basically to err on the side of caution, to give the Miranda warning almost every time," said John Charles Thomas, who represents the National District Attorneys Association.
Stephen A. Saltzburg, a professor of criminal law at George Washington University, agreed.
"The concern here," said Saltzburg, "is that now you are going to have to take into account whether someone is 7 or 9 or 13 or 16, and how is the police officer going to do that? I think the answer is: When in doubt, give Miranda warnings."
But it is unclear how Thursday's decision will affect the way police interact with student-suspects. "In many places, there's a routine practice of trying to contact a parent," said Saltzburg. "But in many [other] instances, if the parent is not available, the police have good reason not to want to delay, and in some instances, the fact is that they don't want the parent present. And unless the law requires the parent to be present, they will proceed with an interrogation."
The case gives a "real world" look at how police operate, says Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City Police officer, prosecutor, defense counsel, and now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Pointing to the facts of this case, he noted that the police investigator "took great pains to orchestrate an environment where he would not have to give the Miranda warnings," said O'Donnell. "A lot of people think that cops are dying to take out that Miranda card and read the rights to suspects. But in fact the police are very reticent to do that. They rely on .. getting people to talk."
Steven Drizen, legal director at Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Conviction, calls Thursday's ruling "huge."
"This is the first time the court has applied Miranda to an interrogation that takes place in the schools, which is the site of many interrogations of children," said Drizen. "This is huge because when police go to locate suspects who are children, the first place they often go is to their school. And many times, police officers will question suspects at the school under the belief that if they do so, then they don't have to apply Miranda because it's not a station-house interrogation. ... It's been a loophole ... and this decision will close that loophole."
Indeed, "juveniles make up a disproportionate number of those who falsely confess," added Drizen, citing recent studies that demonstrate juveniles account for fully one-third of wrongful convictions based on false confessions. "The pressures of police interrogations weigh much more heavily on a juvenile suspect than they do on an adult suspect" leading to "exponentially higher" false confession rates among juveniles, said Drizen.
Decision's Possible Impact
Child advocates were thrilled with Thursday's ruling. "The court [issued] a resounding statement that whether we look to simple common sense or whether we look to research, there's no question that the characteristics of age and adolescence are relevant when we think of children's rights under the Constitution," said Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro said that the decision must be considered in light of the trend of referring disciplinary actions to the courts instead of the principal's office. "Increasingly, misbehavior that used to be treated as a school disciplinary problem is now treated as a law enforcement problem," said Shapiro. "At a minimum, therefore, we have to ensure that students' rights are protected in those circumstances, and the decision is a step in that direction."
Others, like George Washington University's Saltzburg wonder whether giving Miranda warnings to kids will make any difference. "The reality," said Saltzburg, "is that even with Miranda warnings, it's doubtful that young people understand exactly what it all means and understand their choices, and so in the long run, I doubt that there will be many fewer confessions because of this opinion."
Indeed, the Supreme Court specifically left unanswered the question of whether a formal Miranda warning will suffice when given to a child, and what, if anything, police must do to make sure kids who are questioned do understand their rights.http://www.npr.org/2011/06/17/137236801 ... errogation
Court Rules Children Have Rights "Right NOT Talk to Police"