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Age and custody: U.S. Supreme Court alters the rules

The decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina has signaled a major change in the Miranda landscape

Russian playwright Anton Chekov wrote The Three Sisters at the beginning of the 20th century. It was a four act play chronicling the lives of Olga, Masha, and Irina of the fictional Prozorova family. The play dealt with the sisters’ adjustment and search for substance in their lives in a changing social tableau. We may have encountered our own legal version of The Three Sisters in the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision J.D.B. v. North Carolina which addressed police questioning of juveniles in a school setting. The opinion, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayer, and joined by her sister brethren Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, along with Justices Steven Breyer and Anthony Kennedy, changes the basic Miranda standard applied to questions related to custody.

The standard — whether an objectively reasonable person innocent of any crime would consider himself or herself to be free to leave police presence — has been a known and universally applied standard in police work. Additionally, it has been relied upon by prosecutors seeking admission of defendant statements at trial. The Court’s sudden veering off the well-worn road of Miranda jurisprudence is a radical departure from prior Miranda based decisions which followed a strict adherence to objective considerations concerning the questions of custody. Subjective considerations — such as a defendant’s psychological frailty — were irrelevant to the custody analysis. In the Court’s June 16 decision, a child’s age was held to be a proper consideration under a custody analysis for purposes of issuing Miranda warnings.

Clearly, the opinion’s author and her junior colleague have been adjusting to their relatively new roles on the Court and have, in this opinion, significantly affected the Court’s ideological tableau.

Facts of the Case
The facts of J.D.B. v. North Carolina begin with an investigation. J.D.B. is a 13-year-old middle school student suspected in two residential burglaries. He is removed from class by a uniformed school resource officer and taken to a conference room where he is interviewed by the officer and a detective for half an hour. At no time was the child’s legal guardian, his grandmother, contacted or requested to come to the school. The room to which J.D.B. was brought had the doors closed during the interview and the child was alone in the room with the two police officers, the assistant school principal, and an administrative intern.

After some small talk with the child, the detective focused on the criminal investigation. Despite early denials of any involvement in the crimes — and an attempt at a false alibi — the child eventually relented and admitted involvement after being confronted with evidence that a stolen camera had been located at the school and was previously viewed in J.D.B.’s possession.

There was some prompting from the assistant principal for J.D.B. to “do the right thing” and further stating that “the truth always comes out in the end.” J.D.B. inquired if he would still be in trouble if he returned the items. At one point he was confronted by the detective with the prospect of detention if he was uncooperative. It was after learning of the potential for juvenile detention that J.D.B. relented and admitted his responsibility for the burglaries. Once J.D.B. made the admissions the detective informed him he did not have to answer the detective’s questions and that he was free to leave. He subsequently provided a written statement and then was allowed to return home at the end of the school day.

Motion to Suppress Statements
The two juvenile charges filed against J.D.B. were for two counts each of burglary and larceny. His public defender motioned to suppress the statements as custodial without the benefit of Miranda warnings and as involuntary. The trial court admitted the statements and J.D.B. eventually admitted to all counts against him. Both the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court upheld the lower determination. However, the Court of Appeals decision was a divided panel and the North Carolina Supreme Court decision had two dissents. While the voluntariness issue was raised by J.D.B.’s counsel it was not addressed by the state Supreme Court and therefore not before the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal. The custody analysis was the sole question presented to the Court.

In her majority opinion, Justice Sotomayor places emphasis on the Court’s prior cases wherein it has distinguished juveniles from adults in the criminal justice process. She cites cases dealing with capital punishment for juvenile murderers, parental consent laws for juvenile abortions, and pre-Miranda juvenile confession cases focusing on due process and voluntariness concerns to support the Court’s analysis in J.D.B. Further support is garnered from historical treatment within the common law and authoritative commentary in treatises such as the Restatement (Third) of Torts. While the cited authorities certainly make the case for the law’s differential treatment of juveniles the Court’s approach is too broad and its sweeping pronouncement may have opened a Constitutional Pandora’s Box.

When it comes to questioning juveniles each state may have procedures of its own in place. For instance, New York Family Court Act section 305.2 provides that police cannot interrogate a child under 16 unless a parent or guardian is present, the interview takes place in a properly designated room and Miranda warnings are read to the child and the parent or guardian. But this applies to custodial questioning of the child not to non-custodial questioning as alleged in the J.D.B. case. This then raises an inquiry as to whether the Court could have simply restricted its holding the limited issue as to an objective determination whether J.D.B was in custody and not resorted to a differentiation in analysis between adults and children for Miranda custody purposes.

There is a two-part analysis the Court has previously outlined for Miranda-required custody determinations:

1.) the circumstances surrounding the police questioning, and,
2.) would a reasonable person have felt he or she was free to end the police questioning and leave?

Earlier Cases and Decisions
For the admissibility of any custodial statement provided to the police there is an additional two-prong threshold — first, the advisement of rights threshold, second, the voluntariness threshold. A voluntary statement may be un-Mirandized and a Mirandized statement may have been involuntarily given. In either scenario when there is custody the statement will not be admitted. In the J.D.B. case the threshold determination is whether he was in custody. The Court has clearly stated in its prior Stansbury v. California decision that custody is not determined by either the questioning police officer’s subjective belief as to custody or that of the person being questioned. In Stansbury, the Court actually cut through all other arguments to arrive at the core consideration and resolve the question before the Court as to whether or not Robert Stansbury was in custody.

By finding there was custody the Court closed out the matter with clear dispatch, something it should have done in the J.D.B. case. The unfortunate result in J.D.B. is the potential broad sweep of the decision and it serving as a vehicle for future individual challenges to police questioning and custodial claims based on subjective criteria, a criteria which had been foreclosed by prior Court decisions. Even one of the joining majority Justices in J.D.B., Anthony Kennedy, had only seven years earlier authored the majority opinion in Yarborough v. Alvarado which rejected, among other things, age and inexperience with law enforcement as being relevant to Miranda custody analysis. Justice Kennedy wrote in Yarborough, “[O]ur opinions applying the Miranda custody test have not mentioned the suspect’s age, much less mandated its consideration. The only indications in the Court’s opinions relevant to a suspect’s experience with law enforcement have rejected reliance on such factors.”

Kennedy went on in Yarborough to write, “[T]here is an important conceptual difference between the Miranda custody test and the line of cases from other contexts considering age and experience. The Miranda custody inquiry is an objective test.”

In J.D.B., he changed course and joined the Court’s liberal bloc led into the charge by Justice Sotomayor. It will be some years before the full impact of J.D.B. will be realized and whether the pronouncement of the Juvenile Law Center that it stands as a “landmark decision” will hold up. To borrow a line from The Three Sisters: “It’s curious that we can’t possibly tell what exactly will be considered great and important, and what will seem paltry and ridiculous.”

What remains for law enforcement in the field is a decision with no clarity as to how it is to be applied. State law and department procedures for interviewing juvenile suspects will remain viable guidelines for custodial settings but scenarios in which officers would not otherwise deem to be custodial must be reevaluated.

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