Court sets new Miranda standard

The case involved questioning of a North Carolina boy.

Washington correspondentJune 17, 2011 

— The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against the state of North Carolina on Thursday in the case of a juvenile who was questioned in a Chapel Hill school conference room without being read his Miranda rights.

As a result, law enforcement officials across the United States will have to carefully consider a young suspect's age before deciding whether to inform that person that he or she has the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.

In the case, J.D.B. vs. North Carolina, the court concluded that police must consider a suspect's age in determining whether the questioning is "coercive." If a juvenile would find the situation coercive, the officer must therefore read the Miranda rights.

The case dates to 2005 when a 13-year-old boy was pulled out of his class at a Chapel Hill middle school and interrogated behind a closed door by a police detective and three other adults about some neighborhood break-ins.

The boy confessed. He was never told he had the right to an attorney or any rights specified in Miranda.

His attorneys later tried to have his statements suppressed, but that was denied Orange County District Court. The decision was upheld by the N.C. Court of Appeals and the N.C. Supreme Court.

On Thursday, the justices did not issue a decision about whether J.D.B. actually was in custody and therefore should have been read his Miranda rights. Instead, they sent the case back to the North Carolina courts for this decision - "this time taking account of all the relevant circumstances of the interrogation, including J.D.B.'s age at the time."

The ruling applies to questioning of juvenile going forward.

'Reasonable person'

Until Thursday, police were required to decide whether, during questioning, a "reasonable person" would consider themselves in custody. If the answer is yes, then law enforcement must read the Miranda rights.

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the "reasonable" standard should take into account a suspect's age.

"A child's age is far more than a chronological fact," wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her decision for the majority.

"Even where a reasonable standard otherwise applies, the common law has reflected the reality that children are not adults," Sotomayor wrote.

"In fact," she wrote later, "in many cases involving juvenile suspects, the custody analysis would be nonsensical absent some consideration of the suspect's age. This case is a prime example."

Sotomayor was joined in her decision by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

Writing in opposition was Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

The effect it may have

Juvenile justice advocates were elated.

"Obviously I think the ruling is terrific," said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Justice Law Center in Philadelphia. "I think Justice Sotomayor's opinion really underscores yet again the simple fact that kids are different and that their legal status must take into account their age."

The effect of the decision on the number of confessions or improper arrests among juvenile suspects remains to be seen. But law enforcement officers are likely to revise their ways, said John Charles Thomas, a lawyer at Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Va., who drafted a friend-of-the-court brief for North Carolina on behalf of the National District Attorneys Association.

"It would make sense that with this decision you would think what would happen there would be more Miranda warnings," Thomas said.

The Miranda rights exist to prevent police from coercing confessions, he said.

"That's a good thing, but it wasn't meant to say people shouldn't talk to police," Thomas said. "Miranda is a barrier of a kind. I mean, it makes people stop talking."

Cooper on losing side

The decision went against N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, who argued the case in Washington in March. He declined an interview request Thursday, instead issuing a brief statement that steered clear of criticizing the court's decision.

"Law enforcement needed a definite answer on whether they must consider age for Miranda purposes, and now we know they do," Cooper said in the statement. "Officers need clear standards when questioning witnesses, and it will be important for future courts to keep this ruling narrow."

The court's dissenting justices, though, hammered away.

Writing for the four-member minority, Alito said the decision takes away from Miranda's clarifying one-size-fits-all rule.

"Safeguarding the constitutional rights of minors does not require the extreme makeover of Miranda that today's decision may portend," Alito wrote.

bbarrett@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0012

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