Juveniles and Miranda "Custody"

In J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court didn't really clarify the issue of Mirandizing juveniles. Until further issues are litigated, officers should consult policy advisers to obtain guidelines for Mirandizing and interrogating juvenile suspects.

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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.[PAGEBREAK]

The court thought it significant that JDB's interrogation occurred at school, since the presence and conduct of students are already subject to a certain level of official control. As the court explained, "The effect of the schoolhouse setting cannot be disentangled from the identity of the person questioned. A student-whose presence at school is compulsory and whose disobedience at school is cause for disciplinary action-is in a far different position than [an adult]. Without asking whether the person questioned in school is a minor, the coercive effect of the schoolhouse setting is unknowable." (J.D.B. v. North Carolina)

The court also considered that children may feel pressure in situations where an adult would perceive no compulsion, declaring that "children generally are less mature and responsible; often lack the experience, perspective, and judgment to recognize and avoid choices that could be detrimental to them; and are more vulnerable or susceptible to outside pressures." This led the court to conclude that "No matter how sophisticated, a juvenile subject of police interrogation cannot be compared to an adult subject."

If, as the court majority found, a juvenile's age could make a difference in deciding whether his or her freedom has been restrained to the degree associated with a formal arrest, then courts deciding on whether officers should have Mirandized before interrogating a juvenile must factor in the juvenile's age and try to view the circumstances from the standpoint of a reasonable juvenile of similar age. "We hold," said the court, "that so long as the child's age was known to the officer at the time of questioning, or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, its inclusion in the custody analysis is consistent with the objective nature of the test."

The court added, "This is not to say that a child's age will be a determinative, or even a significant, factor in every case." This means that merely because a suspect is under 18 years of age does not necessarily mean that he or she must be Mirandized before interrogation in order to make answers admissible in court. It simply means that a court ruling on a suppression motion based on Miranda must take the minor's age into account in deciding whether the circumstances amounted to the functional equivalent of arrest.

Beheler at School

In a pair of cases (Oregon v. Mathiason and California v. Beheler), the Supreme Court held that when suspects come to the police station voluntarily to be questioned, officers can dispel compulsion by communicating to the person that he or she is not under arrest and can leave at will. As long as nothing is said or done to change this understanding, the suspect's resulting confession is admissible, even though no Miranda warning was given. The wording officers now routinely use to bring their cases within the rulings in Mathiason and Beheler-often referred to as a "Beheler warning"-is this: "You're not under arrest. You're free to leave here anytime you wish."

If a Beheler warning is sufficient to permit unMirandized questioning in the police station, it should presumably be sufficient to permit unMirandized questioning in the principal's office at school. No such warning was given in the JDB case, so the court had no occasion to rule on whether that would have been enough (although the court pointedly noted no such admonition was given to JDB).

J.D.B. Fallout

The Supreme Court did not rule that JDB was in custody or that his statements were inadmissible. The court merely remanded the case to the state courts to decide that issue. Until further issues relating to Mirandizing juveniles are litigated, officers should consult policy advisers to obtain guidelines for Mirandizing and interrogating juvenile suspects.

Devallis Rutledge is a former police officer and veteran prosecutor who currently serves as Special Counsel to the Los Angeles County District Attorney. He is the author of 12 books, including "Investigative Constitutional Law."

Related: SCOTUS Expands Miranda Rights for Juveniles

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DA Special Counsel
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