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.