New Bulletin on Juvenile Interrogations

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Nearly five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided J.D.B. v. North Carolina, a case arising from the police interrogation of a middle school student in Chapel Hill. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that police officers must consider a juvenile’s age when determining whether they must read juveniles their Miranda rights before questioning them. The ruling represents a major shift in Miranda jurisprudence by establishing a different standard for evaluating police interrogations of juveniles – the reasonable child standard. In the years since J.D.B., however, lower courts have not clearly defined how the reasonable child standard impacts the assessment of whether a juvenile was “in custody.” The application of this new standard also raises questions about how North Carolina courts evaluate custody determinations in the school setting. These and other issues are addressed in “Applying the Reasonable Child Standard to Juvenile Interrogations After J.D.B. v. North Carolina” (No. 2016/01), a new Juvenile Law Bulletin.

Pre-J.D.B.: The Objective Reasonable Person Test

The Miranda decision established the well-known rule that police officers may not question a person who “has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way” without first providing certain warnings related to an individual’s Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444 (1966). In North Carolina, in addition to the regular Miranda warnings, juveniles must also be informed of their right to have a parent, guardian, or custodian present during questioning. G.S. 7B-2101. However, the requirement to advise juveniles of both their Miranda and juvenile rights arises only when they are “in custody.”

Although the Miranda rule involves several inquiries (custody, interrogation, waiver, etc.), whether the juvenile was in custody at the time of the interrogation is perhaps the most heavily litigated issue. For decades, that determination was made using the same objective test that applies to adults – the reasonable person standard. Under this test, an individual is in custody when a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would believe that he or she had been formally arrested or restrained to the same degree of a formal arrest. The test requires an evaluation of the totality of the circumstances but primarily depends on how a reasonable person in those circumstances would perceive his or her freedom of movement.

Because the test was characterized as an objective one, it did not take into account the personal characteristics of the suspect, such as age. Prior to J.D.B., the Supreme Court had even suggested that the inclusion of age in the Miranda analysis “could be viewed as creating a subjective inquiry.” Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 668 (2004). As a result, North Carolina courts evaluated juvenile interrogations according to objective factors such as the number of officers present, the location of the interrogation, and the use of restraints on the juvenile without any consideration of the fact that the person being questioned was a child.

Post-J.D.B.: The Reasonable Child Standard

As one of the attorneys handling the case for the State of NC, I remember discussing J.D.B. with several of my non-attorney friends and family members who seemed genuinely shocked that juveniles could be questioned by police officers (under any circumstances) without being informed of their rights. Their commonsense reactions to the idea that juveniles were treated much the same as adults during police encounters is the basic premise of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

In J.D.B., the U.S. Supreme Court held that “a child’s age properly informs the Miranda custody analysis,” reversing the N.C. Supreme Court on that issue. 131 S. Ct. 2394, 2399 (2011). The Court reasoned that childhood is an objective factor because it yields “commonsense conclusions about behavior and perception” that apply universally to children as a class, and these conclusions “are self-evident to anyone who was a child once himself, including any police officer or judge.” Id. at 2403. According to the Court, law enforcement officers and judges need only have “common sense to know that a 7-year-old is not a 13-year-old and neither is an adult.” Id. at 2407.

J.D.B. represents a significant change in the way courts and police officers must determine whether a juvenile is in custody. Some advocates called the decision a “watershed moment” in juvenile law and predicted that it would be a “game changer” in challenging juvenile confessions (see this law review article). However, the relatively few North Carolina appellate decisions applying J.D.B. have not reflected substantial change in the evaluation of juvenile interrogations. In one case, the court stated that a juvenile’s age was not a significant factor at all. State v. Yancey, 221 N.C. App. 397, 400-01 (2012) (holding that a juvenile’s age did not alter the court’s conclusion that he was not in custody where he was questioned 2 months before his 18th birthday).

New Bulletin: Applying the Reasonable Child Standard

Under the reasonable child standard, courts and police officers must account for a juvenile’s age, if the juvenile’s age was known or “objectively apparent” to the interrogating officer. J.D.B., 131 S. Ct. at 2406. J.D.B., however, does not provide specific guidance on how the analysis changes when officers know the juvenile’s age. My bulletin attempts to fill the gaps for police officers and courts who must determine how age impacts the Miranda custody analysis.

Surveying cases from all jurisdictions in which J.D.B. has been applied revealed two basic trends: (1) that while age is not necessarily dispositive, it impacts the custody analysis more significantly for younger juveniles, and (2) that the coercive effect of the other objective circumstances surrounding an interrogation may be heightened when a juvenile’s age is considered. In the bulletin, I discuss how age affects the evaluation of specific factors, including:

  • the location or physical surroundings of the interrogation,
  • whether a parent or other trusted adult was present,
  • the presence of other adult participants,
  • whether the juvenile was expressly told that he or she was free to leave,
  • whether the juvenile voluntarily submitted to the interview,
  • the duration of the interview, and
  • the nature of the questioning.

 

Regarding the location of the interrogation, the bulletin addresses whether North Carolina’s heightened standard for school interrogations survives after J.D.B. The N.C. Supreme Court held in In re J.D.B. that juveniles who are interrogated at school must be subject to additional restraint “that goes well beyond the limitations” that are normally present at school. In re J.D.B., 363 N.C. 664, 670 (2009), revd, 564 U.S. 261 (2011). The court’s reasoning was essentially that a juvenile is not in custody for purposes of Miranda merely because school attendance is compulsory and students are required to comply with school rules. This part of the court’s holding was not addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in J.D.B., which was reversed solely on the state supreme court’s failure to consider the juvenile’s age.

Lower courts have continued to apply the additional restraint rule following J.D.B. See, e.g., In re R.B.L., ___ N.C. App. ___, 776 S.E.2d 363, *7–8 (July 21, 2015) (unpublished) (15-year-old was not in custody where he was escorted from his classroom to the front office by the principal and an SRO and then questioned by two school officials in the SRO’s presence with the door shut and without being told that he was free to leave). In light of J.D.B.’s mandate that courts consider a juvenile’s age, NC may need to reconsider the evaluation of custody in the school setting. See J.D.B., 131 S. Ct. at 2406 (stating that a “student—whose presence at school is compulsory and whose disobedience at school is cause for disciplinary action—is in a far different position” from that of various adults who may be voluntarily present on school grounds). Read the bulletin for a more detailed discussion of this issue and other ways J.D.B. has impacted juvenile interrogations in NC.

One comment on “New Bulletin on Juvenile Interrogations

  1. In 1993 my son was 17 the sheriff’s deputy come to the house picked him up for questioning in the patrol car he was not allowed to ride with me. I was told to follow them to the sheriff’s department where they took him in I was told to wait outside a back door I was never allowed inside wherever they took him a couple of deputies come outside where I was to smoke and update me I was told after a couple hours they came out I asked when was I going to be able to see him they said soon just stay put. They went back in this happened a few times saying I could not see him but they were almost done. Little did I know they were actually interrogating him for hours cussing yelling at him he was scared to death, they arrested him,booked him put him in jail and I was told that the next am I could bail him out to find a bondsman. We had never had a problem with the law neither Jim or any of our family. I had no idea what to do I asked them. I did get an attorney to represent him in court which he told him just plead guilty to everything. He was given a year intensive probation. Pay restitution 220 hrs community service. He did all that. I never knew for years what actually happened. I was shocked. Some of the things he was charged with was they told him when the other boys told him what they had done he didn’t call police so he was charged with them. In NC there is no expungement of records apparently. His life long dream was to go into the military and then pursue a career in some form of law enforcement. He did serve in the military with accommodation honors for honorable acts. When he was discharged after the military he proceeded to college graduated with honors with an associate degree in computer science kept going and graduated with highest honors maintaining 4.0. I did not know that the felony charge for throwing a brick into a glass door window was so serious. The boy who was older ring leader I guess you might say worked for the electric company had apparently disconnected the power was given a misdemeanor because they just picked one of the 3 to let go easy & his stepfather was a local business owner where I was just a nurse who had made the mistake of transferring my son in his senior year of high school to another school we moved to a different county. Sorry I am sure this is confusing but I am on disability now and because of my ignorance of the law my son got involved with a couple of young men who lived a totally different lifestyle than we had ever known over a couple of weeks got into trouble just trying to fit in socially. Now he cannot even rent an apartment! I am shocked that all this can almost be put on my shoulders. He firmly admits his involvement takes responsibility and accountability and has said what bothered him the most was disappointing me. Not him feeling bad for himself but for what he did to me. He had to buy a condo since no one would rent to him. I need help advice anything that I can do to help in some way to maybe get his record expunged or something. 24 years later with the education he has still cannot find a job that he is so qualified for because no one wants to look past the words felony on his application. He has suffered as much as a person who has committed murder. Please please, anything you could suggest would be greatly appreciated. I didn’t know he could not vote go out of the country go hunting anymore even though he served honorable in both the Afghanistan and then Iraq wars with pride and honor. Even his probation officer asked how did he get mixed up with those boys because he knew for sure he said he didn’t belong in the situation he was in. He paid all restitution even the part owed by the other boys. His community service hours were served for the state as they asked if they could keep him since he was a hard worker and a pleasure to have. The probation officer let him off a little early when he found out they would definitely take him in the military he never gave up on that dream. I hate to see such a bright honorable person unable to reach his fullest potential because of a mistake at age 16. He is now 40. Never in trouble before or since. Not even so much as a traffic violation. Thank you in advance for your consideration. I think if I had of been allowed to at least see my son or talk to him we could have at least had some counsel during this time instead of just an attorney to represent him in court after all this had taken place.

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