Supreme Court Holds That Age Is a Factor in Miranda Analysis

The United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in J. D. B. v. North Carolina, holding that age is a relevant factor in determining whether a child believed he or she was free to leave in connection with a Miranda custody analysis.  In the case, police had stopped and questioned a 13-year-old, seventh-grade boy in North Carolina, upon seeing him near the scene of two home break-ins.  Five days later, when a digital camera matching one of the stolen items was seen in the boy’s possession, a uniformed police officer took J. D. B. from his classroom to a closed-door conference room, where police and school administrators questioned him for at least 30 minutes.  They did not give him Miranda warnings, the opportunity to call his legal guardian, or tell him he was free to leave the room.  Initially he denied involvement, but later confessed after officials urged him to tell the truth and told him about the prospect of juvenile detention.  Only then did the police investigator tell J.D.B. that he could refuse to answer questions and was free to leave.  Subsequently, the boy provided further details and signed a statement at the investigator’s request.  In the juvenile court proceedings, J.D.B. challenged the admissibility of his admissions as having been obtained a custodial setting, in which he had been interrogated without being afforded Miranda warnings.  The trial court denied the motion, and J.D.B. was adjudicated delinquent.  The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed, finding that the boy had never been in custody, so no Miranda warnings were required.  The Court found that age was irrelevant to this analysis.

On June 16, 2011, the United States Supreme Court reversed the decision of the North Carolina Supreme Court and remanding for further proceedings.  Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court (5-4) in which Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan joined. The question before the Supreme Court was whether the age of a child subjected to police questions is relevant to the custody analysis of Miranda v. Arizona, 384  U. S. 436 (1966).   The Court began by noting that whether a suspect is “in custody” for Miranda purposes is an objective determination involving inquiry into (1) the circumstances surrounding the interrogation; and (2) given those circumstances, whether a reasonable person would have felt he or she was at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave.  She reviewed language from other Supreme Court cases indicating that children are particularly subject to feeling pressure from adults to comply with their wishes.  The opinion concluded that so long as the child’s age was known to the officer, or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, including age in the custody analysis is consistent with the Miranda test’s objective nature.  The Court went on to state that, while this does not mean that a child’s age will be a determinative, or even a significant, factor in every case, it is a reality that courts cannot ignore.

In dissent, Justice Alito criticized the majority for making the Miranda custody determination one that must account for the individualized characteristic of age, rather than maintain the  simplicity of a “one-size- fits- all reasonable person test.”  Justice Alito’s dissenting opinion was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia and Thomas.

The case was remanded with directions to address the question whether J. D. B. was in custody when he was interrogated, taking ac-count of all of the relevant circumstances of the interrogation, including J. D. B.’s age at the time.  The J.D.B. v. North Carolina opinion is posted on the United State Supreme Court web site.