Juvenile's Age is a Factor in Miranda Custody Analysis

Vol 30 No 5


On June 16, 2011, the United States Supreme Court ruled that age is a relevant factor when determining if a child is "in custody" for purposes of giving Miranda warnings.

J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 131 S.Ct. 2394 (2011).


A 13-year-old juvenile was questioned by police and school administrators at his school about his suspected involvement in two home burglaries. He was not given Miranda warnings, given a chance to call an adult caregiver, or told he could leave the room before being questioned.


The juvenile first denied his involvement, but later confessed once urged by the officials to tell the truth and advised of the possibility of juvenile detention. It was not until after his confession that an investigator told him of his right to refuse to answer questions and his right to leave anytime. The juvenile nodded when asked if he understood these rights, then proceeded to give more information and a statement.


The juvenile was charged with breaking and entering and larceny. His public defender argued that since he had not been given Miranda warnings and was interrogated in a custodial setting, his statements were involuntary and should be suppressed. The trial court denied the motion, finding the juvenile was not in custody when he was interrogated and his statements were voluntary.


The juvenile entered a transcript of admission to the charges, but objected to the denial of the motion to suppress. The trial court adjudicated him delinquent.


The state court of appeals affirmed, declining to find the juvenile was in custody when he confessed. The state supreme court affirmed, declining a request to find the juvenile’s age relevant to determining if he was in police custody for Miranda purposes.


The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed. Writing for the majority, Justice Sotomayor held that a child’s age is relevant to the Miranda custody analysis. Because of the coercive nature of custodial interrogations, the Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966) set safeguards to protect individuals against self-incrimination during custodial interviews. Before starting an interview, a suspect must be warned of the right to remain silent, that any statement made may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to an attorney.


Miranda’s safeguards are only required when a suspect’s individual freedom has been restricted, rendering him “in custody.” The circumstances surrounding the interrogation and the likelihood that a reasonable person would feel free to leave are two factors used to determine if a suspect is “in custody” for purposes of giving Miranda warnings.


The state argued the juvenile’s age was not relevant to the custody analysis. The Supreme Court disagreed, explaining that “in some circumstances, a child’s age ‘would have affected how a reasonable person’ in the suspect’s position ‘would perceive his or her freedom to leave.’”


The Supreme Court has long recognized that children possess characteristics that make them unique and distinguish them from adults. They tend to lack maturity and responsibility. Their lack of experience, perspective and judgment can cause them to make poor choices. They are vulnerable to influence and outside pressure and their ability to understand the world around them is often limited.


Because of these unique characteristics, the law often places limits on children as a class, such as preventing them from marrying without parental consent, or from entering binding contracts. These limitations reflect an “understanding that the differentiating characteristics of youth are universal” and that “children cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults.”


The Court found no basis for overlooking a child’s age in an interrogation. It stressed that as long as a child’s age is known, or would be objectively apparent to an officer, including it in the custody analysis does not require officers to consider circumstances unknown to them or to anticipate a suspect’s frailties or idiosyncrasies.


The Court explained further that a custody analysis would not make sense without considering the suspect’s age. Police officers and courts cannot evaluate the impact of objective circumstances specific to children without considering the age of the child subjected to those circumstances. Evaluating circumstances through the eyes of an adult would lead to different conclusions than if those circumstances are evaluated through a youth’s eyes.


The Court concluded that as long as a child’s age is known to an officer at the time of police questioning, or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, including it in the custody analysis is consistent with the objective nature of the test.


Since the question remained whether the juvenile in this case was in custody during his interrogation, the Court reversed and remanded so the state courts could make that decision.

ABA President Praises U.S. Supreme Court Decision

ABA President Stephen N. Zack issued the following statement in response to J.D.B. v. State regarding the rights of children subject to police questioning:

It’s a matter of fact, not just law, that children are not the same as adults. It is hard to imagine anyone feeling comfortable with a 13-year-old child being questioned by police without a Miranda warning. Today’s decision by the Supreme Court in the case of J.D.B. v. State of North Carolina recognizes a child’s unique vulnerabilities and immaturity when it comes to judgment and understanding. The American Bar Association agrees strongly with the court’s smart, fair decision that a child's age must be considered when making a Miranda custody determination.

Note: The ’s amicus brief argued that children, compared to adults, have unique vulnerabilities, are less capable of making critical decisions in an informed and mature manner, are more impulsive and reckless, and have less capacity to understand the long-term consequences of their actions. This is the third case in recent years in which the has filed an amicus brief on the unique status of children. In Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court in 2005 declared unconstitutional the death penalty for those who commit crimes as juveniles. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court applied that principle in Graham v. Florida, holding that a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional for juveniles who commit non-homicide crimes as children.