CHAPEL HILL — The U.S. Supreme Court decided last week that your friendly neighborhood middle school is not necessarily a Miranda-Free Zone.
In J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the court held that a child's age should be taken into consideration in deciding whether the well-known Miranda ruling and warning - "You have the right to remain silent ...." applies. The facts of the case raised a more profound issue: whether the police can use school attendance to circumvent the Constitution.
J.D.B. was suspected by police of committing a residential burglary (The circumstances detailed here come from transcripts of lower-court proceedings.). When the hapless 13-year-old brought a stolen digital camera to school in Chapel Hill one day, a teacher reported him and the police were called. J.D.B. was pulled out of class by a uniformed police officer and brought to a conference room where the assistant principal and the detective investigating the burglary were waiting.
After some initial questioning J.D.B. was confronted with the camera as evidence of his guilt. When the assistant principal encouraged him to "do the right thing," J.D.B., who was a special education student, innocently asked if he would still be in trouble if he gave the stuff back. The detective has testified that he then told J.D.B. that the matter was going to court and warned him that "if I felt that he was going to go out and break into other people's houses again because he really didn't care" he would have J.D.B. put into a juvenile detention facility.
What happened next would have confounded most adults, and must have made no sense to the middle-schooler. The detective told J.D.B. that he was free to leave and did not have to speak with him. Why? Because Miranda does not apply to people who are not in custody. By telling J.D.B. that he was free to leave, the detective was avoiding telling J.D.B. what he really needed to know - his Miranda rights.
Now imagine yourself in this situation as a 13-year-old. The police have the goods on you; you already half-confessed by asking if you can give the stuff back; the detective just told you that he will lock you up if he thinks "you don't care."
Do you really feel like you are free to leave? What good does leaving the conference room do if you end up getting thrown into a juvenile detention facility? So J.D.B. did the only thing that could have made sense to him. He made a full confession.
Custody for Miranda purposes is defined objectively, and the state of North Carolina argued that a reasonable person would have felt free to leave all along. J.D.B.'s lawyers argued that the court should ask whether a reasonable 13-year-old would have felt free to leave.
Since most 13-year-olds wouldn't have felt free to leave when brought to see the assistant principal by a uniformed police officer, this would have made quite a difference. Only in some strange sort of alternate universe could you ask whether a reasonable person in J.D.B's situation would have felt free to leave without distinguishing between children and adults. Adults don't get called to the principal's office. Justice Sonia Sotomayor described as nonsensical and absurd the idea that you could do a Miranda custody analysis in J.D.B's case or in many other juvenile cases without considering age.
By interrogating J.D.B. at his middle school, however, the police were able to take advantage of the natural deference to authority that most students exhibit when at school. They were able to question J.D.B. in a setting that reasonably seems custodial to kids while hiding behind the fact that "a reasonable adult" would not believe himself to be in custody there. The police were also able to circumvent the protection of J.D.B's family, who had earlier objected to his being questioned by the police.
Arguably, J.D.B. had been in custody for the purposes of Miranda when he was first brought into that conference room. Before being questioned and confronted with the stolen camera he should have been told of his right to remain silent, warned that whatever he said could be used against him in court, told that he had a right to have an attorney present during questioning and assured that that an attorney would be provided if he could not afford one. These four simple warnings are a small price to pay for a fairly obtained confession.
All of which raises the larger issues at stake in the case. What happens constitutionally to our children when they show up for school in the morning? Do they lose their rights against self-incrimination to the degree that they respect their teachers and administrators? Should police investigations for crimes that don't even occur at school be allowed to piggy-back on a school's disciplinary authority?
We send our children to school to learn, not to be interrogated behind our backs and not to be tricked into giving up rights they don't even know they have. In allowing courts to consider age in determining Miranda rights for juveniles like J.D.B., the Supreme Court makes it more likely that juveniles will be dealt with fairly by the police that they increasingly encounter at our nation's schools. That is one lesson that our schools can't do without.
Joseph E. Kennedy is a professor at the UNC School of Law and a fellow at UNC's Parr Center for Ethics.