U.S. Supreme Court Orders More Protections for Juveniles Who Are Interrogated by Police


The United States Supreme Court re-affirmed that the legal system should treat children and adults differently in J.D.B. v. North Carolina, which held this week that a child’s age should be considered in deciding what police are required to do before interrogations.

In J.D.B., a Chapel Hill, North Carolina, police detective investigating two neighorhood break-ins interrogated a 13-year-old seventh grader after having him taken out of class and escorted to a closed conference room by a uniformed, armed police officer. That officer, the school’s assistant principal, and another adult male school employee were present during the interrogation, which was led by the detective. The detective did not advise J.D.B. of his rights or tell him he could have a parent or a lawyer present.

J.D.B. initially denied involvement in the break-ins, but after the detective threatened to put him in juvenile detention, J.D.B. gave an inculpatory statement. At his juvenile trial, J.D.B.’s lawyer argued that his statement could not be used against him because he was not advised of his Miranda rights before the police interrogation.

Criminal suspects are entitled to Miranda warnings if they are questioned while in police custody. A person generally is considered to be “in custody” if a reasonable person in the same circumstances would believe that he was not free to leave.

J.D.B.’s lawyer argued that a 13-year-old middle school student under these circumstances — including that students are not allowed to leave the school or even to walk away from an adult without permission — would not believe he was free to leave and therefore was in custody for Miranda purposes.

The trial court found that J.D.B.’s age was irrelevant and allowed his statement to be used in court because he was not “in custody” at the time. He was found guilty of the break-ins, and appealed to the state supreme court, which agreed with the trial court over two strong dissents.

The United States Supreme Court granted review and heard oral argument in March. Its June 16, 2011, decision reversing the state court’s opinion reaffirms established precedent, including the Court’s decision last Term in Graham v. Florida, holding that the law must take into account the fact that the perceptions, cognitive abilities, and moral development of juveniles are different from those of adults.

Justice Sotomayor, writing for the majority, underscored the Court’s commonsense observations, backed by scientific studies, that children “generally are less mature and responsible than adults”; that they “often lack the experience, perspective, and judgment to recognize and avoid choices that could be detrimental to them”; and that they “are more vulnerable or susceptible to . . . outside pressures” than adults. Indeed, the Court found, “[t]he law has historically reflected the same assumption that children characteristically lack the capacity to exercise mature judgment and possess only an incomplete ability to understand the world around them.”

Because children are categorically different from adults in ways that bear directly on the question of whether a reasonable person would feel free to leave, the Court held that “so long as the child’s age was known to the officer at the time of police questioning, or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer,” it must be considered in the analysis of whether the child is in custody and must be given Miranda warnings.

The Court’s decision importantly confirms that, in applying constitutional protections, a child’s age, and “the very real differences between children and adults,” are “a reality that courts cannot simply ignore.”