In re J.D.B. involves a thirteen-year-old special education student who was questioned at school in the principal’s office by police officers about his involvement in a string of burglaries that occurred outside of school. J.D.B. was not Mirandized. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of North Carolina found that the minor, J.D.B. was not in custody and, therefore, was not entitled to Miranda protections. As a result, the denial of his motion to suppress his confession made during questioning at school was affirmed and his adjudication upheld.
The Supreme Court of the United States created the Miranda rule to counter-balance the inherently compelling pressures present in any standard police interrogation and to mitigate the unreliable evidence and false confessions that these interrogations can produce. However, Miranda warnings are not required until a person is (1) interrogated while in (2) custody. The custody inquiry is designed to give police clear guidance and is an objective test about whether a reasonable person believes himself to be under the equivalent of arrest. Consideration of individual characteristics, including age, is considered a subjective inquiry—today that is up for debate.
In March 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States has heard oral arguments in In re J.D.B. to determine whether a trial court may consider a juvenile’s age in a Fifth Amendment Miranda custody analysis in evaluating the totality of the objective circumstances and determining whether a reasonable person in the juvenile’s position would have felt he or she was free to terminate police questioning and leave.
Petitioners argue that age is an objective circumstance, as it exists apart from thought. And, they argue, juveniles are especially vulnerable to making false confessions and unreliable statements in response to police interrogation tactics like those used against J.D.B. The state contends that if a suspect’s age and experience are put into the constitutional calculus that would require speculation by police officers as to how such factors would affect the suspect’s state of mind, thereby turning the inquiry into a subjective one. And, even when police do know a suspect’s age, it may be difficult for them to ascertain what bearing it has on the likelihood that the suspect would feel free to leave.
It can’t be argued that schools are inherently a coercive environment designed to elicit compliance by students to authority. School attendance and submission to authority are compulsory. Students are never free to leave, not cooperate, or terminate an interaction with an authority figure. If this ruling is allowed to stand, the lower standard for school interrogations will create an incentive for police officers to interrogate juveniles at school for crimes they are suspected of having committed outside of school.
Frankie Guzman is a rising third-year student at UCLA School of Law and serves as NLLSA’s Pacific Regional Director.