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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Border Agents Violated Juvenile Law, Court Says

(CN) -An alleged juvenile smuggler who told U.S. Border Patrol agents that he was an adult should have been treated with kid gloves, the 9th Circuit ruled. The judges asked the lower court to decide if this violation of juvenile law led to his confession.

A strict interpretation of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JDA) requires officials to err on the side of caution if they have reason to believe that an arrestee is a juvenile, "regardless of the information available to police officers about the juvenile's age," according to the three-judge panel in Pasadena, Calif.

Border Patrol agents arrested R.P. in 2006 on suspicion of smuggling after they caught him driving a truck loaded with alleged illegal immigrants. R.P., a Mexican native, told the arresting agent that he was 18, but the records of his numerous prior arrests indicated that he was still a minor.

R.P. told investigators that he had met a smuggler in Mexicali, Mexico, who offered to smuggle him into the United States for $1,900. The smuggler allegedly offered to lower the debt by $500 if R.P. would become a smuggler himself.

R.P. had no ID or other documents, and officials proceeded with the case as if he were an adult. R.P. later spent more than a month in custody while his attorney tried to prove that he was a juvenile. The issue was finally settled when R.P.'s mother in Mexico provided a copy of his birth certificate, which stated that he was born Jan. 1, 1989, making him 17 at the time of his arrest.

The government then charged him with various smuggling-related crimes as a juvenile.

The district court held that R.P. was a juvenile delinquent and sentenced him to 10 and a half months imprisonment with supervised release until his 21st birthday.

On appeal, R.P. argued that his confession should have been suppressed because it violated the JDA, which provides clear guidelines on handling juvenile offenders.

The 9th Circuit agreed that R.P.'s rights under the JDA were violated and sent the case back to the district court to "consider whether the violations were a cause of R.P.'s confession."

"The plain language of the statute ... compels the conclusion that juveniles are entitled to the protections of [the JDA] whenever they are taken into custody," the ruling states.

"The strict rule adopted by Congress should, as a practical matter, induce arresting officers initially to treat an arrestee as a juvenile if there is some basis for doing so - for example, the arrestee's appearance, information about past arrests, or some other indication."

The court added that the JDA provides a "bright-line rule" that requires arresting officers to "when in doubt, treat the arrestee as a juvenile."

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