Personal Characteristics and “Custody” for Miranda Purposes

The North Carolina Supreme Court recently decided In re J.D.B., a close and interesting juvenile case. I mentioned it briefly here when it divided the court of appeals. It has implications well beyond the juvenile context, which I’ll unpack at the end of this post.

The basic facts are as follows: Chapel Hill police suspected a seventh-grade student, who participated in special education classes, of breaking into several houses. An investigator went to the juvenile’s school and had him removed from class and escorted to a conference room by a school resource officer. The investigator questioned the juvenile in the presence of the SRO, the assistant principal, and an intern. The door of the conference room where the interview took place was closed but not locked. The juvenile was not given Miranda warnings or the “juvenile Miranda” warnings required prior to custodial interrogations by G.S. 7B-2101, and he made incriminating statements. He was allowed to leave and catch the bus home, but later was charged. He moved to suppress his statements based on the lack of Miranda and statutory warnings.

The trial court found that such warnings were not required because the interview was not custodial. The court of appeals affirmed 2-1. The majority and the dissent agreed that whether the juvenile was in custody depends on whether a reasonable person in the juvenile’s circumstances would have believed that he was under arrest or subject to a degree of restraint typically associated with an arrest. The two opinions disagreed about whether the “reasonable person” in question should share the juvenile’s personal characteristics, such as his age and the fact that he was enrolled in special education classes. The dissent thought that those characteristics were relevant, and argued, in effect, that a reasonable seventh grade special education student would have felt compelled to respond to questions in the setting described above. The majority believed that those characteristics were not relevant, and that a reasonable person would not have believed he was de facto under arrest given that he was not handcuffed, the door was not locked, and the interview was relatively brief.

Because the court of appeals was split, the juvenile was entitled to review by the supreme court. The supreme court affirmed 4-3. The majority and the dissent differed on two crucial points. First, the majority concluded, based on a suggestion in Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652 (2004), that the custody issue must be resolved without reference to the juvenile’s personal characteristics. (It noted, however, that such characteristics are relevant to the question of whether a person has knowingly and voluntarily waived his rights under Miranda.) Second, the majority held that custody, in a school context, requires a substantial restraint of liberty beyond what is inherent in the school setting. Based in part on those two premises, the majority ruled that the juvenile was not in custody, because the door was not locked or guarded, the investigator asked the juvenile if he was willing to answer questions rather than ordering him to do so, and in fact, the investigator eventually let the juvenile go.

Justice Brady’s dissent argued that the juvenile’s personal characteristics are relevant to the custody inquiry, and suggested that the investigator sought a “tactical advantage” by questioning the juvenile at school in a formal setting, with the adults dressed either in police uniforms or in business attire. Justice Hudson, joined by Justice Timmons-Goodson, took a similar position. She observed that Yarborough was no more than a suggestion and argued that the standard for what counts as “custody” should be lower, not higher, at school because it is a structured environment. She would have held that the interview was custodial given that the juvenile was “escorted” to it and in light of the large number of adults involved and the formality of the setting.

The importance of this case in the juvenile context is apparent: it gives the green light to conducting juvenile investigations at school, and suggests that most interactions between the police and students conducted at school will be viewed as non-custodial by the courts. But the implications extend also to other categories of people who might be especially prone to believe that interactions with the police are effectively compulsory, such as those with limited intellectual functioning, those with mental illnesses, and those who have limited proficiency in English. Consider, for example, a borderline mentally retarded defendant, stopped on the street by three officers and questioned about a crime. Before J.D.B., such a defendant might have argued that even if a person with an average IQ would have recognized the interaction as a noncustodial Terry stop, a reasonable borderline mentally retarded person would have viewed it as indistinguishable from an arrest, making it custodial for Miranda purposes. After J.D.B., that argument appears to be a loser.