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Home In the News Juveniles and Miranda Warnings

Juveniles Must Get Miranda Warnings

By Robert Iafolla

Friday, June 17, 2011

WASHINGTON - Interrogators must factor in a juvenile suspect's age when considering whether to give the Miranda warning against self-incrimination, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision Thursday.

The court did not create a bright-line rule and instead instructed authorities to consider age, if it's known or obvious, when deciding whether a reasonable person would think they were in custody. Interrogators are required to give Miranda warnings to suspects in custody.

The court's two former prosecutors penned the opinions, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor writing for the court and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. handling the dissent.

"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," Sotomayor wrote. "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."

Alito, however, characterized the majority's ruling as an "extreme makeover" of Miranda that puts it on a slippery slope toward becoming unclear and difficult for law enforcement to apply.

The decision will likely have the most impact on California and the 22 other states that, according to the Juvenile Law Center, lack statutes or appellate decisions requiring special practices for interrogating adolescents. There were more than 200,000 juvenile arrests in California in 2009, state attorney general's office statistics show.

"In California, as in many other states, there's been a move over the past 10 to 20 years of treating children as adults by trying them in adult court, sentencing them to adult facilities and giving them the same responsibilities as adults," said Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. She said the ruling is a break from the trend of "treating children as small adults."

But Michael L. Guisti, a sole practitioner in Irvine who represents juvenile defendants, said the ruling still gives police "a lot of wiggle room" to avoid giving the Miranda warning.

The underlying case involves a police interview in which a 13-year-old boy, identified as J.D.B., admitted to breaking into and stealing from two houses in Chapel Hill, N.C. The investigator did not warn the boy of his Miranda rights during the closed-door interrogation held in a conference room at his school, J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 09-11121.

Although Justice Anthony M. Kennedy didn't write the court's opinion overturning the North Carolina Supreme Court, he played kingmaker by joining the left-leaning justices to form the five-justice majority.

The ruling diverges from the court's recent pro-prosecution rulings in Miranda cases, noted Laurent Sacharoff, a professor specializing in criminal procedure at the University of Arkansas School of Law. "A possible explanation is that Kennedy has a special solicitude towards youth that trumps law enforcement," Sacharoff said.

For example, Kennedy wrote the court's 5-4 decision banning juvenile executions and its 6-3 follow-up prohibiting life sentences for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005); Graham v. Florida, 130 S.Ct. 2011 (2010).

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