(CN) – Police must consider a child’s age when giving Miranda warnings before subjecting them to questioning, the divided Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a decision that pulled the majority from the more-numerous conservative justices with a vote from the usually right-leaning Justice Anthony Kennedy.
In the underlying case, Chapel Hill, N.C., police first spoke to 13-year-old J.D.B. when they spotted him in the neighborhood where two home break-ins had been reported. They later learned that J.D.B. had been spotted at his middle school with a digital camera matching the description of one of the stolen items, and they questioned him there for at least 30 minutes without contacting his grandmother, who acts as the boy’s legal guardian.
“Prior to the commencement of questioning, J. D. B. was given neither Miranda warnings nor the opportunity to speak to his grandmother,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority. “Nor was he informed that he was free to leave the room.”
J.D.B. ultimately confessed to the break-ins during that conversation, and only then did the police’s uniformed officer, named in the ruling as Investigator DiCostanzo, inform the boy that he could refuse to answer questions and was free to leave.
“Asked whether he understood, J.D.B. nodded and provided further detail, including information about the location of the stolen items,” Sotomayor wrote. “Eventually J.D.B. wrote a statement, at DiCostanzo’s request. When the bell rang indicating the end of the schoolday, J.D.B. was allowed to leave to catch the bus home.”
When the boy was charged with juvenile petitions alleging breaking and entering and larceny, his public defender moved to suppress his statements and the evidence on the basis that he had been interrogated in a custodial setting without a Miranda warning.
After the trial court denied the motion, J.D.B. admitted to each of the charges and was ruled delinquent. A divided state appellate panel affirmed, as did the divided state Supreme Court.
“By its very nature, custodial police interrogation entails ‘inherently compelling pressures,'” Sotomayor wrote, quoting from the Supreme Court’s landmark 1966 decision Miranda v. Arizona. “Even for an adult, the physical and psychological isolation of custodial interrogation can ‘undermine the individual’s will to resist and … compel him to speak where he would not otherwise do so freely.’ Ibid. … That risk is all the more troubling – and recent studies suggest, all the more acute – when the subject of custodial interrogation is a juvenile.”
Though North Carolina argued that a child’s age has no bearing on custody analysis, the majority said it could not agree.
“That is, a reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go,” Sotomayor wrote. “We think it clear that courts can account for that reality without doing any damage to the objective nature of the custody analysis.”
These commonsense conclusions should be “self-evident to anyone who was a child once himself, including any police officer or judge,” Sotomayor added.
“Miranda‘s procedural safeguards exist precisely because the voluntariness test is an inadequate barrier when custodial interrogation is at stake,” the ruling states. “To hold, as the State requests, that a child’s age is never relevant to whether a suspect has been taken into custody – and thus to ignore the very real differences between children and adults – would be to deny children the full scope of the procedural safeguards that Miranda guarantees to adults.”
On remand, the state courts must take J.D.B.’s age into account and address whether the child was in custody when police interrogated him.
Justice Samuel Alito authored a dissenting opinion on behalf Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
“The Court’s decision in this case may seem on first consideration to be modest and sensible, but in truth it is neither,” Alito wrote. “It is fundamentally inconsistent with one of the main justifications for the Miranda rule: the perceived need for a clear rule that can be easily applied in all cases. And today’s holding is not needed to protect the constitutional rights of minors who are questioned by the police.”
Custody analysis considers only whether a reasonable person would consider himself confined because “the risk of unconstitutional coercion is heightened when a suspect is placed under formal arrest or is subjected to some functionally equivalent limitation on freedom of movement,” according to the dissent.
“Today’s decision shifts the Miranda custody determination from a one-size-fits-all reasonable-person test into an inquiry that must account for at least one individualized characteristic – age – that is thought to correlate with susceptibility to coercive pressures,” Alito wrote. “Age, however, is in no way the only personal characteristic that may correlate with pliability, and in future cases the Court will be forced to choose between two unpalatable alternatives. It may choose to limit today’s decision by arbitrarily distinguishing a suspect’s age from other personal characteristics – such as intelligence, education, occupation, or prior experience with law enforcement – that may also correlate with susceptibility to coercive pressures. Or, if the Court is unwilling to draw these arbitrary lines, it will be forced to effect a fundamental transformation of the Miranda custody test – from a clear, easily applied prophylactic rule into a highly fact-intensive standard resembling the voluntariness test that the Miranda Court found to be unsatisfactory.”
The dissent continues that minors facing police interrogation are often “near the age of majority, that the Miranda custody rule already accounts for the unique circumstances of interrogations conducted in a school setting, and that courts already take “special care” to ensure that police did not coerce incriminating statements from the “especially young.”
“Safeguarding the constitutional rights of minors does not require the extreme makeover of Miranda that today’s decision may portend,” Alito wrote.