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Miranda warnings, Juvenile Suspect: Age of Child Relevant to Custody Analysis

J.D.B. v. North Carolina, USSC No. 09-11101, 6/16/11, reversing 363 N. C. 664, 686 S. E. 2d 135

This case presents the question whether the age of a child subjected to police questioning is relevant to the custody analysis of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U. S. 436 (1966) . It is beyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave. Seeing no reason for police officers or courts to blind themselves to that commonsense reality, we hold that a child’s age properly informs the Miranda custody analysis.

J.D.B., a 13-year-old 7th-grader, was removed from his school classroom by a police officer and taken to a closed-door conference room. Abetted by an assistant principal, who exhorted the child to “do the right thing,” the cop grilled him for at least 30 minutes about a recent burglary. The kid then confessed, without benefit of Miranda warnings. The lower court’s conclusion that the child wasn’t in custody was based, the Court holds, on faulty analysis that failed to take into account age as a consideration. The test for custody is objective, and thus ignores a suspect’s personal characteristics. But after stressing, at some length, that age matters – children can’t and don’t see the world through adult eyes – the Court concludes that this factor “is different” from personal characteristics

Reviewing the question de novo today, we hold that so long as the child’s age was known to the officer at the time of police questioning, or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, its inclusion in the custody analysis is consistent with the objective nature of that test.8 This is not to say that a child’s age will be a determinative, or even a significant, factor in every case. Cf. ibid. (O’Connor, J., concurring) (explaining that a state-court decision omitting any mention of the defendant’s age was not unreasonable under AEDPA’s deferential standard of review where the defendant “was almost 18 years old at the time of his interview”); post, at 17 (suggesting that “teenagers nearing the age of majority” are likely to react to an interrogation as would a “typical 18-year-old in similar circumstances”). It is, however, a reality that courts cannot simply ignore.

Finally, the State and the dissent suggest that excluding age from the custody analysis comes at no cost to juveniles’ constitutional rights because the due process voluntariness test independently accounts for a child’s youth. To be sure, that test permits consideration of a child’s age, and it erects its own barrier to admission of a defendant’s inculpatory statements at trial. See Gallegos, 370 U. S., at 53–55; Haley, 332 U. S., at 599–601; see also post , at 17–18 (“[C]ourts should be instructed to take particular care to ensure that [young children’s] incriminating statements were not obtained involuntarily”). But Miranda ’s procedural safeguards exist precisely because the voluntariness test is an inadequate barrier when custodial interrogation is at stake. See 384 U. S., at 458 (“Unless adequate protective devices are employed to dispel the compulsion inherent in custodial surroundings, no statement obtained from the defendant can truly be the product of his free choice”); Dickerson , 530 U. S., at 442 (“[R]eliance on the traditional totality-of-the-circumstances test raise[s] a risk of overlooking an involuntary custodial confession”); see also supra, at 5–6. To hold, as the State requests, that a child’s age is never relevant to whether a suspect has been taken into custody—and thus to ignore the very real differences between children and adults—would be to deny children the full scope of the procedural safeguards that Miranda guarantees to adults.

This doesn’t mean that J.D.B. is home-free, only that the lower court needs to take another stab at it.

The question remains whether J. D. B. was in custody when police interrogated him. We remand for the state courts to address that question, this time taking account of all of the relevant circumstances of the interrogation, including J. D. B.’s age at the time. The judgment of the North Carolina Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

The holding is consistent with A.M. v. Butler, 360 F.3d 787, 797 (7th Cir. 2004) (“At the outset, we note that, in making the objective inquiry, Morgan’s age is an important factor. … Morgan was only 11 when he sat alone in the police interrogation room.”). What about State v. Colin G. Schloegel, 2009 WI App 85 (employing re high school student: “an objective test, inquiring how a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would have understood the situation,” id., ¶7). You be the judge on that one.

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