Supreme Court Takes Two Views on Questioning Youths

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The U.S. Supreme Court, deciding cases about questioning youths, sidestepped the constitutional questions surrounding interviewing children in their schools about alleged child abuse, declaring the cases moot, but created a broad new protection to youthful suspects being questioned by police.

Camreta v. Greene and Alford v. Greene, both of which questioned whether child welfare officials should first obtain a warrant before questioning a possible child abuse victim at his or her school, were declared moot by the court because the Oregon girl involved – identified as “S.G.” – no longer has a personal stake in the case because she is 19.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that a warrant was needed before a social worker or police officer questioned an alleged abuse victim at a school without a parent being present.  One of the cases was against the social worker in the matter, the other against the police officer who sat in on the interview but did not ask any questions.

The Supreme Court justices vacated the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.

Then, in June, the court voted narrowly, 5-4, to mandate that age should factor into a police officer’s decision of whether to give a Miranda warning to juveniles when they are being questioned about a crime.

The case, J.D.B. v. North Carolina, involved 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 who was assigned to the school and an assistant principal.

It is the first time since the Miranda v. Arizona ruling established the current custody analysis in 1966 that the high court has mandated the consideration of a factor specific to the individual in question. The Miranda process historically only requires officers (and courts upon review) to consider specific circumstances such as where questioning occurred, how long it lasted or whether any physical restrain was used to keep a suspect in a certain place.

“Neither officers nor courts can reasonably evaluate the effect of objective circumstances that, by their nature, are specific to children without accounting for the age of the child subjected to those circumstances,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined in her opinion by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

“This does not mean that a child’s age will be a determinative, or even a significant, factor in every case, but it is a reality that courts cannot ignore.”

Dissenters in the case – Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas – expressed fear that the decision would be the first of many to obscure Miranda guidelines past their usefulness.

“I have little doubt that today’s decision will soon be cited by defendants – and perhaps by prosecutors as well – for the proposition that all manner of other individual characteristics should be treated like age and taken into account in the Miranda custody calculus,” Alito wrote in the dissent. “Indeed, there are already lower court decisions that take this approach.”

More specific to the case at hand, Alito argued that juveniles are already protected in school by Miranda’s requirement that setting be a factor.

“The Miranda custody rule has always taken into account the setting in which questioning occurs, and accounting for the school setting in such cases will address many of these problems,” he wrote.

And juveniles are protected in general, Alito said, by the ability of judges to assess the voluntariness of their communication with police under the Fifth and 14th Amendments.

“If Miranda’s rigid, one-size-fits-all standards fail to account for the unique needs of juveniles, the response should be to rigorously apply the constitutional rule against coercion to ensure that the rights of minors are protected,” Alito wrote. “There is no need to run Miranda off the rails.”

The J.D.B case is the latest in a string of cases in which the high court has applied protection to certain groups of juveniles. The court banned the juvenile death penalty in the 2005 Roper v. Simmons case, and last year ruled in Graham v. Florida that life without parole sentences were unconstitutional for juveniles convicted of any crime other than homicide.

“This represents the court’s settled commitment to its view that kids are different,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director and co-founder of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. “It’s just a further shoring up of that direction they’ve been moving in for last several years.”