17 June 2011

J.D.B. v. N.C.: The Supreme Court on Questioning a Juvenile
Or How to NOT Set a Standard

Yesterday the Federal Supreme Court decided in J.D.B. v. North Carolina that in deciding whether someone is in custody (and thus must be told his Miranda rights) the courts must consider the age of the individual. Up to this point, there was a rather strong argument that under appellate precedent the objective factors which were to be considered in determining whether a suspect was in custody were all external to the suspect. Was he in a locked room? Was the officer sitting between the suspect and the door? Was the suspect in cuffs? &cetera. Now, the court has made it clear that those characteristics of a suspect which are known, or should be known, to an officer must be taken into consideration as objectives factors. For the moment this has only been applied to age, and I shall only discuss the age issue today, but it leaves open all sorts of interesting possibilities for future arguments based on race, gender, religion, etc.

J.D.B. was 13 years old. While in school, he was pulled out of class and put in a room with an officer and a vice principal. Without being read Miranda or being put in contact with his parents, he was questioned and confessed to a crime.

The entire argument of the case on appeal was whether his age had to be considered in determining whether he was in custody. And that's the only question the court answered. It's answer? Yes. There's more verbiage to it, but no actual standard appears anywhere. How is age to be considered? No answer is given. The Federal Supreme Court dumps it all back on the North Carolina Supreme Court to decide if J.D.B. was in custody when questioned.

Most of the opinion is spent rebutting governmental claims that age is a proxy for state of an individual's subjective mindset. The problem here is that it is not entirely convincing. What we are substituting for a the subjective mindset of an individual is the perceived subjective mindset of a class. All individuals are presumed both to know that they have the right to walk away from questioning and to have the capability of doing so. However, we perceive that minors, as a class, may not understand they have the right to leave or have the ability to walk away from authority figures.

So, since the Supreme Court has declined to actually give us a standard, how is minority going to be considered in determining whether someone is in custody? Well, the simple answer would just be to lay down a blanket rule that if officers question anyone under 18 without parental presence the questioning is custodial. Yet, that seems just as contrary to common sense as not taking age into consideration at all. After all, we all know that 17 and 18 year olds aren't different (other than an arbitrarily drawn line). If an 18 year and 1 day old understands the difference between custody and freedom to leave, a 17 year and 364 day old should understand as well.

Another possible test would be to go to the age rules which have developed over many years in the U.S. Basically, these age rules declare that (1) a child under 7 years of age CANNOT commit a crime, (2) a child 7 to 14 is rebuttably presumed not to be able to commit a crime, and (3) a child 15 to 17 can commit a crime. The first and third rule can be easily ported into the new precedent. Under 7 a child is always in custody when questioned by an officer; 15 and older the minor is treated as an adult. The problem here is the second rule. If we rebuttably presume that a child suspect age 7 to 14 is in custody when questioned we leave open circumstances in which the child suspect is not in custody because he understands as well as a normal person in the same circumstances. If we start arguing over the maturity of a particular 14 year old (he runs the local gang, handles $10k a week in drug business, and has a 17 year old girlfriend) then we start having objective / subjective problems. We have decided he is objectively in a class presumed to have a mindset not capable of understanding and handling the questioning situation. Are the circumstances which indicate that he is mature objective ones considerable by the officer or are they merely indications of a individually subjective mindset which cannot be considered?

Perhaps the standard is that Miranda must be read to each and every minor, whether the minor is objectively in custody or not. But, that doesn't really solve the age problem. At what age do we deem minors able to even understand Miranda warnings? At what age do we deem them capable of acting even if they understand?

This has, just in the portion that will deal with minors, potential to ripple out for at least 3 to 5 years. If you throw in all sorts of other classes - abused women, lawyers, the handicapped, etc. - this has the potential to ripple out into decades of constitutional decisions.


Michael Donner said...

I do not see this new case being such a sea-change in the law as bloggers seem to think it is. The Supreme Court has long held (e.g., Fare v. Michael C. in 1979) that the age of a juvenile must be taken into account in determining the voluntariness of a juvenile's confession. This new case simply tells lower courts to add the fact the suspect is a juvenile to the "totality of the circumstances" in determining whether, objectively, a suspect is "in custody" for Miranda purposes. It seems like a small leap in logic to extend Fare's logic to the test of whether an suspect is in custody.

All this case does is set up two separate actors for the Miranda analysis: an objective adult and an objective juvenile. The law is full of distinctions between adults and juveniles; I don't see any major difference in the reasoning here.

Another way to look at this case as is follows: Fare required courts to consider the age of the suspect in determining whether his waiver of Miranda was voluntary. This new case simply requires the trial court to consider the age of the suspect in determining whether Miranda was required in the first place.

Anonymous said...

So, you don't like a bright line rule for Miranda based on age.

Do you have a similar problem with rules on statutory rape and drinking?

In fact, I agree with you on the notion that evaluating a minor's ability to understand a situation is difficult to evaluate. Where I differ is that we have been dealing with that same question forever when thinking about sex, and apparently the best we can do is a bright line age-based rule that leads to absurdity and broken lives in some cases.

If we're willing to tolerate a system that lists a man as a sex offender for sleeping with the woman he is now married to, I, for one, don't see a problem in having a bright-line rule that limits cops' ability to question a 17.99 year old, if it also means that a 13 year-old isn't assumed to understand the legal nuance that most adults don't understand.

Matthew Kensky said...

I agree with M. Donner that this new case doesn't open a can of worms, nor will it hamstring police. It simply says that when a court is deciding whether a kid is in "custody" for Miranda purposes, the court can take into account the fact the kid is a kid, as one of about 6-7 other objective custody factors. Should a court put on blinders & ignore that a 15 year old suspect might reasonably (objectively) be in custody, whereas a 35 year old might not?


I appreciate K. Lammers' concern that this arguably delves into subjective factors- IF this case actually did that, things could get murky. I also think he's right that we may see challenges along the proverbial slippery slope towards other new factors- e.g, a mentally-retarded suspect, or a female suspect surrounded by all male police.

But, this JDB v. NC case keeps Miranda law grounded in objective factors. "Custody" analysis already directs courts to look at two inquires: "first, what were the circumstances surrounding the interrogation; and second, given those circumstances, would a reasonable person have felt he or she was at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave."

Kids are different than adults. Part of the JDB v NC case convincingly lays this out. Also, recall Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (holding unconst'l death penalty for minors). But you don't need the SCOTUS to tell you that- just ask any parent or teacher.

As for me, I'll sleep just fine tonight, not worried that juvenile delinguents are running loose solely because our well-trained police officers are befuddled by this case decision.