SCOTUS Overrules NC Supreme Court: Age Matters in Police Interrogations by Blue LLP

Posted on 22 Jun 2011

SCOTUS Overrules NC Supreme Court: Age Matters in Police Interrogations

The United States Supreme Court recently decided J.D.B. v. North Carolina, a case involving a 13-year old 7th grader in Chapel Hill. In that case, the Court held that a suspect's age is a critical component in determining whether he or she has been subjected to a custodial interrogation.

The police had originally questioned the boy, J.D.B., after he was found near the scene of recent break-ins.  Five days later, he was removed from his classroom by a uniformed police officer and escorted to a closed-door conference room.  The police and school administrators chose not to contact J.D.B.’s grandmother (legal guardian) before speaking with him.

J.D.B. originally denied any involvement with the break-ins or stolen property.  Nevertheless, the investigator continued asking him questions while the assistant principal simultaneously prompted him to “do the right thing”.  Eventually, the investigator threatened to get a court order sending J.D.B. to juvenile detention before his case could be handled in court.  J.D.B then confessed.  The officer conveniently waited until after the confession to inform him that he did not have to answer any of the officer’s questions, and that he was free to leave.

J.D.B.’s attorney moved to suppress the confession, under the principal that he was was in custody and being interrogated without having been informed of his Miranda rights.  The court denied the motion, and J.D.B. was adjudicated delinquent.  

The NC Supreme Court refused to consider J.D.B.‘s age in determining whether he was “in custody” for Miranda purposes, and went on to hold that there was no Constitutional violation because he in fact was not in custody.  

The United States Supreme Court disagreed.  It held that a child’s age should be included in custody analysis if it is known or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable police officer.  The Court recognized that precedence has established an objective custody analysis.  But it also pointed out that our laws and prior court decisions have long recognized that “children cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults.”  Furthermore, the inherent pressures of custodial interrogation are even more compelling when minors are involved.  Therefore, it would be nonsensical to use a reasonable adult as a model when conducting a custody analysis for a minor.

Although this case involves a minor, adults often succumb to the pressure of custodial interrogation and confess to something they have - or have not - done.  This phenomenon is exaggerated by the fact that courts have upheld investigation tactics that allow police officers to lie in order to convince a suspect to talk, and make threats like the investigator did to J.D.B. about sending him to juvenile detention.  At the end of the day, anyone who is in police custody should politely decline to answer any questions or confess to anything.  It’s our right to remain silent - why not use it instead of handing the case to the state on a silver platter?