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. Continue reading
Tag Archives: J.D.B.
New Bulletin on Juvenile Interrogations
J.D.B., the Supreme Court, and Miranda
As I noted last week, the Supreme Court of the United States just decided J.D.B. v. North Carolina, an important Miranda case. I blogged about the case here when it was decided by the state supreme court, and it’s worth taking another look at it now.
I previously summarized the facts 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 district court judge denied the motion, and the court of appeals and the state supreme court affirmed in divided opinions. In the appellate courts, the key issue was whether the juvenile’s age should have been considered when determining whether he was in custody for Miranda purposes. (As most readers know, the Miranda warnings must be administered to a suspect when a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would conclude that he or she was under arrest or the functional equivalent thereof.) A majority of both state appellate courts held that the answer was no.
The highest court in the land held otherwise, in a 5-4 decision that split along ideological lines. Justice Kennedy was the swing vote, and, as the senior Justice in the majority, assigned the opinion. He assigned it to Justice Sotomayor, a former prosecutor.
The Court held that “a child’s age properly informs the Miranda custody analysis,” so long as the child’s age is known to police or reasonably apparent. It noted that children are “more susceptible to influence . . . and outside pressures” than adults, making the Miranda warnings important in a broader range of settings. And it suggested that it required no more than common sense for officers and judges to take a suspect’s age into consideration when deciding whether a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would feel as though he or she were under arrest or the equivalent.
Justice Alito wrote the dissent. He argued that taking age into account would undermine the clarity of the Miranda rule; would be difficult for officer and judges to apply in practice; and would open the door to the consideration of innumerable other personal characteristics, such as intelligence and education level. He also suggested that especially young suspects would be protected by the rule against admitting involuntary confessions.
A few thoughts and comments about the case. First, it isn’t a complete win for the juvenile. The majority didn’t conclude that he was in custody. Instead, it remanded to the state courts for further consideration, factoring the juvenile’s age into the custody analysis. Second, it’s not completely clear whether the case creates two standards (one for adults, one for juveniles), or, in effect, a sliding scale (for juveniles of different ages). Sometimes the majority talks about “children generally,” “children characteristically,” and “children as a class,” suggesting the former, but I believe that the latter is closer to the mark. The majority expressly points out that it is not saying that “a child’s age will be a determinative, or even a significant, factor in every case,” and illustrates the point with reference to juveniles nearing age 18. (It also states that “a 7-year-old is not a 13-year-old and neither is an adult.”) Third, Justice Alito is certainly correct that this decision will prompt further litigation about suspects’ personal characteristics. As I noted in my earlier post, “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.” Perhaps there are few characteristics that are both as readily apparent and as significant as a suspect’s age, or perhaps there are many. We’ll find out in future cases.
If you have additional thoughts about J.D.B., please let me know or post a comment. If you’d like to read the New York Times article about the decision, it’s here.
I blogged here about In re J.D.B., a juvenile case in which the North Carolina Supreme Court held that a 13-year-old, questioned in an unlocked school conference room by police officers and an assistant principal about the student’s role in several residential break-ins, was not in custody for Miranda purposes. The court stated that “[f]or a student in the school setting to be deemed in custody, law enforcement must subject the student to restraint on freedom of movement that goes well beyond the limitations that are characteristic of the school environment in general.” It found no such additional restraint. Nor did the court accept the juvenile’s argument that his youth and the fact that he was a special education student were relevant to whether or not he was in custody. it “decline[d] to extend the test for custody to include consideration of [personal characteristics, such as] the age and academic standing of an individual subjected to questioning by police.”
It’s a fascinating case that divided the state supreme court and the court of appeals. According to this order, entered yesterday, the United States Supreme Court is going to review it. The question presented in the petition for certiorari is as follows:
WHETHER A COURT MAY CONSIDER A JUVENILE’S AGE IN A MIRANDA CUSTODY ANALYSIS IN EVALUATING THE TOTALITY OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES AND DETERMINING WHETHER A REASONABLE PERSON IN THE JUVENILE’S POSITION WOULD HAVE FELT HE OR SHE WAS NOT FREE TO TERMINATE POLICE QUESTIONING AND LEAVE?
In an interesting coincidence, the court of appeals just decided In re K.D.L., another juvenile Miranda case with similar facts. The court properly acknowledged In re J.D.B., though it characterized the relevance of personal characteristics to the custody inquiry as the subject of a “split of authority,” and distinguished In re J.D.B. in a way that might be read as expressing polite skepticism about some of the conclusions reached in that case. Stay tuned for further developments.
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.