Police, Juveniles and Schools: Three Key Questions on Today’s Supreme Court Case

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The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in J.D.B. v North Carolina this morning, a case in which a 13-year-old was questioned by police officers at school. The court could set new terms on what it means for a youth to be “in custody.” Anybody considered to be in custody, regardless of age, must be advised of his rights pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v Arizona.

However the court rules, it will likely please some in the field of juvenile justice and dismay others. In a column published by Youth Today yesterday, former Minnesota police officer and current youth services leader Richard Gardell wrote that police need to have non-custodial access to youth in order to prevent tragic incidents on and off school grounds.

In a conversation earlier this year, former Indianapolis juvenile public defender Jorge Rodriguez told Youth Today that police often use those non-custodial interrogations as a primer to find out what a youth will say.  After the “informal” talk, they bring in parents and get an official confession, a process that limits a juvenile’s options and leverage once an arrest is made.

Here are three big questions that will likely factor into the court’s discussion and ultimate decision:

Is age an objective, or a subjective, criteria?

Amicus briefs filed on behalf of both sides of this case could not be more split on this issue. Supporters of J.D.B. argue that age is an objective factor; one that evolving science suggests calls for a distinction between youths and adults when it comes to the law.

Three comments from a brief written by the Juvenile Law Center:

“Age is an objective, categorical classification rather than a personal idiosyncrasy.”

“It is now well settled that youth status bears on legal status. The ‘kids are different’ doctrine for the purposes of constitutional jurisprudence is a principle firmly established in the decisions of the Court … [T]he Court has…repeatedly recognized that to make constitutional rights a reality for youth … age must be taken into account.”

“The Miranda inquiry should … recognize that teenagers, who are uniquely susceptible to coercion by police, experience custody differently than adults.”

Supporters of the North Carolina courts argue that considering age when determining custody is a subjective factor, and it would be the first subjective factor ever mandated by the high court concerning an officer’s determination of whether to give the Miranda warning.

From a brief on behalf of 30 U.S. states:

“While the question of a person’s age seems objective … the actual consideration that Petitioners urge is the relative ability of the person being interrogated to reason and make intelligent judgments about whether to speak, and what to say, to police. A juvenile’s maturity, intelligence, experience, and sophistication have nothing to do with the objective circumstances of interrogation.”

From the Obama administration:

“Consideration of a suspect’s age – as an indicium of the suspect’s psychological vulnerability – would, for the first time in the 45 years of post-Miranda jurisprudence, blur the custody line by mandating consideration of a psychological factor. “

From the National District Attorney’s Association:

“Just what impact an individual’s age will have on his perception of his circumstances is speculative at best.”

If the high court accepts that age is a subjective factor, expect tough questions from the justices on the potential for this decision to spark a litany of other petitioners who feel that they should be specially treated when it comes to the question of custody.

If the court sees age as objective, the tough questions could center on what age to draw a line in the sand. As in: At what age does the average youth reasonably have the capability to understand that he has the right to leave any interrogation in which he has not been read his Miranda rights? 13? 15? 17?

“I would take it up to 17,” said Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center, because recent cases involving juveniles have indicated the “acceptance of a bright line” at 18, particularly with Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“Is there a fallback age? Sure, it’s 13,” Levick said. “That’s the case before the court.”

Should the school setting be a factor?

Another issue discussed several amicus briefs is whether the school setting posed a unique problem when it came to youths’ perception of custody, A student may understand that he or she is free to walk out of a police interrogation. But for most students, school attendance is compulsory, and many a code of conduct includes language about adhering to the orders of school officials; for example, a principal sitting in on a police interview.

The North Carolina Supreme Court rules that J.D.B. was not in custody because the restrictions of the school environment apply to all students. The Juvenile Law Center said in its brief that such a determination “makes no sense”:

“Such reasoning … would make it virtually impossible for a court to find that a student in a school setting was ever in custody,” the brief stated. This rule of logic, the brief said, “also leaves students in a uniquely vulnerable situation in which law enforcement would conduct interrogations at school specifically to avoid complying with the Miranda rule.”

The group of 30 states filed in support of North Carolina on the age issue, but the brief seems to support the notion that a school setting could be a more rational custodial factor. From the states’ brief:

 “That the interview took place on school grounds is a legitimate objective factor that plays into the custody determination. Depending on the circumstances of the school, this factor may weigh in favor of custody or against it. Many, if not all, of the purportedly coercive elements of the interview here – such as Petitioner’s inability to leave school grounds, obligation to follow school rules, and the presence of the principal in his interview – arise from the location of the interview on school grounds rather than from the age of the juvenile.”

Do state trends matter?

In the past decade, the Supreme Court has eliminated the juvenile death penalty (Roper v Simmons) and banned the practice of sentencing juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicide to life without the possibility of parole (Graham v Florida). In both cases, the majority opinion made mention of a national consensus against those practices

Supporters of J.D.B. point out that many states already have laws or case law that distinguish between adults and youths on custody and questioning. The brief filed by the American Bar Association lists examples of such statutes in its appendix.