August 2011Volume 99Number 8Page 382

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Miranda: Youth a factor in determining whether interrogation is “custodial”

The U.S. Supreme Court holds that a subject's youth matters when determining whether a Miranda warning is required - a conclusion the Illinois Supreme Court came to years ago.

Saying that neither courts nor law enforcement officials should ignore common sense, the United States Supreme Court has held that a child's age properly informs a Miranda custody analysis. In so doing, the Court joins a number of states, including Illinois, which have previously recognized that principle. The case is J.D.B. v North Carolina, 131 S Ct 2394 (2011).

The facts and lower court holdings

Police zeroed in on J.D.B., a 13-year-old seventh grader, as a person of interest after someone reported seeing him in a neighborhood where two home break-ins had occurred on one day. A uniformed officer went to J.D.B.'s school, escorted him from his classroom to a school conference room, and questioned him in the presence of another officer, an assistant principal, and administrative intern.

J.D.B. did not receive Miranda warnings before that interrogation session. He was not told that he was free to leave the room, nor was he offered the opportunity to speak to his grandmother, his legal guardian.

In response to one officer's questions, J.D.B. said he had been in that neighborhood looking for lawnmowing work. The officer asked J.D.B. for additional details, and the assistant principal urged J.D.B. to "do the right thing," warning him that "the truth always comes out in the end." Ultimately, J.D.B. confessed to participating in the break-ins, whereupon, for the first time, the interrogating officer advised J.D.B. that he could refuse to answer further questions and that he was free to leave. J.D.B. then provided further details about the stolen items and, at the officer's request, wrote a statement.

The state filed two juvenile petitions against J.D.B., each alleging one count of breaking and entering and one count of larceny. J.D.B.'s attorney moved to suppress his statements and other evidence, arguing that police had interrogated him in a custodial setting without giving him Miranda warnings and that his statements were, under the totality of the circumstances, involuntary.

The trial court denied the motion. The North Carolina appellate and supreme courts affirmed, holding that J.D.B. was not in custody when he confessed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the custody analysis of Miranda v Arizona, 384 US 436 (1966), which employs a "reasonable person" standard, must include the consideration of a juvenile suspect's age.

"[C]hildren are not adults"

"The common law has reflected the reality that children are not adults," the Court said. J.D.B., 1315 S Ct at 2404. "A reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go. We think it clear that courts can account for that reality without doing any damage to the objective nature of the custody analysis." Id at 2403.

In a 5-4 opinion, the Court held that as long as a law enforcement officer questioning a child knows or objectively should know the child's age, courts must include that factor in their analysis of whether the child was in custody for purposes of determining whether the child's statements were voluntary and whether the child should have been given Miranda warnings.

Writing for the four dissenting justices, Justice Alito worried that the majority opinion might erode Miranda and lead to unworkable results by requiring so many individual factors to be considered that the "reasonable person" standard would be effectively eliminated. The dissenting justices suggested that the court might ultimately "effect a fundamental transformation of the Miranda custody test - from a clear, easily applied prophylactic rule into a highly fact-intensive standard resembling the voluntariness test that the Miranda Court found to be unsatisfactory." Id at 2409 (Alito dissenting).

Catching up to Illinois

From her Ottawa office, Kerry Bryson of the Office of the State Appellate Defender said, "Those of us who defend juveniles have been advocating that courts view those matters differently from cases involving adult defendants." But Bryson pointed out that Illinois courts arrived at the J.D.B. court's majority conclusion years ago.

Bryson cites People v Braggs, 209 Ill 2d 492, 810 NE2d 472 (2004), and People v Lopez, 229 Ill 2d 322, 892 NE2d 1047 (2008) as examples of the Illinois Supreme Court's forward thinking on Miranda and juveniles. In Braggs, the court found that, to be meaningful, the "reasonable person" standard for custodial interrogation must incorporate the defendant's own characteristics, including age and intelligence.

Case law involving juvenile defendants from federal courts of appeal as well as Illinois's own appellate court persuaded the high court that it should consider the intelligence of a mentally retarded person in its analysis of whether the circumstances surrounding the interrogation were custodial and in whether the defendant knowingly and intelligently waived her Miranda rights. In Lopez, the court explicitly affirmed the "reasonable juvenile" standard for custodial analysis.

Though wary of predicting how the Washington justices might rule when presented with a case involving other factors, such as intelligence, Bryson said she was pleasantly surprised at the J.D.B. court's holding. "In saying we must look at youth as a factor, it's no longer just a 'reasonable person' standard: it's a 'reasonable minor' standard. The U.S. Supreme Court has put its stamp of approval on Illinois's standard."

Helen W. Gunnarsson is a lawyer and writer in Highland Park. She can be reached at <>

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