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Departments : Point of Law

Juveniles and Miranda "Custody"

A juvenile’s age must now be taken into account before interrogation.

August 01, 2011  |  by Devallis Rutledge - Also by this author

Photo: Mark W. Clark.

In the 45 years since Miranda v. Arizona was decided, the court's Miranda jurisprudence has taken many twists and turns. Through 55 decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has refined the rules and exceptions on such issues as custody, interrogation, content of the warning, waiver, invocation, reinitiation of questioning, admissibility, and civil liability. The rulings in these dozens of cases have not always been consistent.

For example, in Fare v. Michael C. in 1979, the court said, "This court has not yet held that Miranda applies in juvenile proceedings." But in the years since-and without expressly ruling that Miranda does apply to juveniles-the court has acted as if it's a foregone conclusion that juvenile cases are in fact subject to Miranda.

As recently as 2004, the court rejected the Ninth Circuit's reliance on a minor's age as a factor in determining whether or not he was "in custody" for Miranda purposes. The court's language, written by Justice Kennedy, seemed quite clear that age was not a relevant factor in the "custody" determination:

"Our Court has not stated that a suspect's age or experience is relevant to the Miranda custody analysis. Our 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." (Yarborough v. Alvarado) Just seven years later, however, Justice Kennedy signed onto a 5-4 opinion mandating that a minor's age be factored into the custody test.

J.D.B. v. North Carolina

Thirteen-year-old JDB committed two residential burglaries in Chapel Hill, N.C. (His full name was not released because he was a minor.) An investigator went to his school and had a uniformed school resource officer take JDB from his classroom and bring him into a closed office, where the investigator and two school officials confronted him about the burglaries. JDB was neither Mirandized nor told he could leave the room. After 30 to 45 minutes of questioning, he confessed.

In juvenile court, JDB's attorney moved to suppress the confession, arguing that because of JDB's youthful age, he should have been given Miranda warnings before the interrogation. The trial court, the court of appeals, and the state supreme court all ruled against JDB on the Miranda issue, finding that he was not "in custody" in the school office. On further appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed.

The court acknowledged that the test of custody is "whether there was a formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with formal arrest." JDB had not been formally arrested, so the issue was whether he was subjected to the functional equivalent of a formal arrest when interrogated. This was the issue upon which the court majority decided a juvenile's age could be relevant.

Historically, restraints of the degree associated with formal arrest have included such steps as handcuffing, securing the suspect in the backseat cage, surrounding the suspect with multiple officers with guns drawn, and stationhouse detention. Ordinary detentions in the field, such as pedestrian stops and vehicle stops accomplished without drawn weapons or cuffing, have not been equated with "custody." (Berkemer v. McCarty; Pennsylvania v. Bruder)

Under this test, a reasonable person in JDB's position would not have been in custody, and need not have been Mirandized. But the Supreme Court has now decided that the "reasonable person" must be viewed as a "reasonable juvenile" when an underage suspect is involved.

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