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J.D.B. v. North Carolina, USSC No. 09-11121, cert granted 11/1/10

Docket

Decision below (N.C. supreme court)

Question Presented:

Whether, in the context of interrogating a juvenile in a school setting, “custody” for purposes of triggering Miranda warnings is determined by a purely objective test; or includes subjective considerations such as the subject’s age and status as a special education student.

Scotusblog page

The nub of the lower court holding:

 … This Court adheres to the view that “the custody inquiry states an objective rule designed to give clear guidance to the police, while consideration of a suspect’s individual characteristics–including his age–could be viewed as creating a subjective inquiry.” Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 668, 124 S. Ct. 2140, 2151-52, 158 L. Ed. 2d 938, 954 (2004) (citing Mathiason, 429 U.S. at 495-96, 97 S. Ct. at 714, 50 L. Ed. 2d at 719).1 Under the circumstances of the case sub judice, we decline to extend the test for custody to include consideration of the age and academic standing of an individual subjected to questioning by police.

At the time, J.D.B. was a 13-year-old, special ed middle-schooler, interrogated in a closed conference room at his school. The lower court dissent joins the issue this way:

The issue in this case is whether J.D.B., a thirteen-year old special education student at Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was significantly deprived of his freedom of movement and thus entitled to the protections of the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution and N.C.G.S. § 7B- 2101(a) before being interrogated by law enforcement officers and school officials in a closed conference room of the middle school. The majority’s conclusion stands in stark contrast to our State’s public policy of aiding, supporting, and protecting juveniles. The manner in which school officials and law enforcement interrogated J.D.B. more resembles hunters carefully and selectively targeting their prey than a fair juvenile investigation consistent with our General Statutes. Because I believe the Juvenile Code affords heightened protections against self-incrimination to juveniles, especially in the restrictive environment of a public middle school, I respectfully dissent.

The most recent Wisconsin stab at determining custody for interrogations on school grounds appears to be State v. Colin G. Schloegel, 2009 WI App 85 (high school student), which “employ(ed) an objective test, inquiring how a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would have understood the situation,” id., ¶7. The Supreme Court hasn’t had occasion to discuss how adolescence might impact the perception of custodial status, and this case would seem to raise the problem pretty starkly. A “reasonable” adult who finds himself in a conference room at school might not have any problem sauntering out the door, going to his car and driving away. But a 13-year-old? And one with special needs? Just where is he going to go, anyway? So is it the lens of a reasonable person; or a reasonable 13-year-old; or a reasonable 13-year-old in special ed? Yes, if this seems at least vaguely familiar territory, it is because you have kept in mind Graham v. Florida, decided only last Term, and which stressed the developmental differences between adolescents and adults in barring nonhomicide life without parole for the former. Might not be much of a stretch to rely on those differences in the context of custodial interrogation.

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