Supreme Court Considers Rules for Police Questioning of Youths in Schools

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The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today on whether police officers should consider age as a factor in determining whether a person being questioned is ”in custody.” Suspects in custody must be given a Miranda warning concerning their rights.

The case, J.D.B. v North Carolina, involves a 13-year-old boy who was questioned by police at his school in connection with two home burglaries. The teen was questioned in a closed (but not locked) room, in the presence of a police investigator, a police officer stationed at the school and an assistant principal.

J.D.B. initially denied being involved in the crimes, and was advised by his assistant principal to “do the right thing.” J.D.B. was then told by the investigator that the case would be going to court, and that he might be detained before trial, at which point the boy  confessed to the crimes.

The investigator then told J.D.B. that he did not have to answer further questions and was free to leave. The teen continued to answer questions until the end of the school day, and then went home.

The basic test established by Miranda v Arizona for considering whether a person is in custody is to assess “how a reasonable man in the suspect’s position would have understood his situation.”

Barbara Blackman, arguing for J.D.B., said the age of a suspect is an objective factor that “must” be taken into account.

Some of the justices questioned Blackman on exactly what group she wanted the high court to address.

“Is there to be one different Miranda requirement rule for all minors?” asked Justice Antonin Scalia. Or, he asked, would she suggest a specific age range for which age must be a factor, such as 20 years old or 17 years old?

 “We did not suggest that it be calibrated by age,” Blackman responded.

If not by age, Scalia countered, “how is it to be calibrated?” Blackman proposed that judgment and common sense should govern how age was considered by law enforcement.

Scalia’s questions touched on an issue for which there is disagreement even among juvenile justice advocates.

Marsha Levick, an attorney for the Juvenile Law Center, said in an interview last night that if she were arguing the case, she would ask the justices to “take it up to 17,” because recent cases involving juveniles have indicated the “acceptance of a bright line” at 18, particularly with Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Supporters of J.D.B.’s case argued it is unreasonable to expect youths to have the same comprehension of their rights as adults when youths are involved in non-custodial questioning by the police.

Do youths realize they can leave?

“What is the likelihood of a child in that situation saying ‘I don’t want to answer these questions, I’ll walk out of this room right now?’ ” asked Levick whose Juvenile Law Center filed a brief supporting J.D.B. “The notion that a 13- or 14-year-old, you would expect to have the same perception as an adult; it’s silly.”

There seemed to be acceptance from many of the justices that very young children would have trouble comprehending that they were free to leave an interrogation at the same level as an adult. Kennedy said it was hard to make a connection between a “reasonable man,” as the Miranda instructions state, and “a seventh grader in a social studies class.”

Justice Samuel Alito wondered whether that exception  should extend beyond youths as young as J.D.B.

“Sympathetic cases can make bad law,” he said. “So take the same set of facts and let's hypothesize that this is a 15-year-old. Would the 15-year-old appreciate that he could go? Or make him a street-wise 17-year-old.”

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper argued on behalf of the state. Justice Stephen Breyer asked Cooper what would be so hard for law enforcement if age became a Miranda factor.

“School resource officers, there are thousands of them … often counsel kids as well as protect the school,” Cooper said. “Under the petitioner's theory, a school resource officer who is going to take a juvenile into a room to talk about a stolen cell phone or bullying, the first thing that he's got to say is, ‘You have the right to remain silent.’ ”

Why not have the first thing be a clear advisory that the youth was free to leave if he wanted, Breyer asked?

“Well, he may not want him to go,” Cooper said to some laughter from the gallery.

“He's not free to leave?” Breyer shot back. “Okay. Well, then, why not warn him?”

Breyer suggested, as he has in previous Miranda cases, an “open test” of objectivity when it came to Miranda, meaning that anything about a subject that would be readily known to both an officer and suspect, including age, should be considered an objective factor for determining custody.

He asked Blackman if she agreed with that sort of test.

“Conceptually, absolutely,” Blackman replied.

Cooper was joined during oral arguments by Eric Feign, assistant to the U.S. solicitor general, who argued in support of North Carolina on behalf of the Obama administration.

“I was surprised that the solicitor general came in at all, and that they came in on the side of North Carolina,” said Levick.

The administration also joined the state’s side in a case earlier this month about how state officials can interact with youths on school grounds in child abuse investigations.

In addition, a group of 30 states filed an amicus brief supporting North Carolina’s position on not using age as a factor, but expressed recognition that the school setting might be a reasonable factor to consider in determining custody.

“That the interview took place on school grounds is a legitimate objective factor that plays into the custody determination,” the brief stated. “Depending on the circumstances of the school, this factor may weigh in favor of custody or against it.”

Justice Ruth Ginsberg suggested that any problems with age being an objective factor are irrelevant in school.

“It’s in a room in the school,” she said. “It’s not a mystery, it’s not a guess.”