U.S. Supreme Court to Consider Whether Middle School Students Should Have More Protection Before Police Interrogations


The United States Supreme Court will hear argument on March 23, 2011, in J.D.B. v. North Carolina, No. 09-11121, to address whether a child’s age should be considered in deciding what police are required to do before interrogating a child.

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.

A divided North Carolina Supreme Court agreed with the trial court. One of two strong dissenting decisions argued that the “majority’s conclusion stands in stark contrast to our State’s public policy of aiding, supporting, and protecting juveniles. The manner in which school officials and law enforcement interrogated J.D.B. more resembles hunters carefully and selectively targeting their prey than a fair juvenile investigation consistent with our General Statutes.”

The United States Supreme Court will now decide whether the failure to consider J.D.B.’s juvenile status is contrary to established precedent, including the Court’s decision last Term in Graham v. Florida, holding that the law should take into account the fact that the perceptions, cognitive abilities, and moral development of juveniles are different from those of adults.