By Nicole Mortorano, J.D. Candidate

Recently, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether a thirteen-year old boy was held in custody, when he was interrogated in a school conference room by police officers and school administrators.  Holding that age is one of the factors that determines whether a child is in custody, J.D.B. v. North Carolina issued a landmarkMiranda decision to protect juvenile rights.  Moving forward, the Court needs to further recognize the uniquely coercive elements within the school environment and offer procedural protections beyond Miranda for students who are interrogated within the school.[1]

Overview of Miranda

Miranda warnings are required when a person is in custody and being interrogated about self-incriminating information.[2]  Miranda warnings serve to dissipate the heightened coercive elements that are present during custodial interrogations.  To protect individuals’ Fifth Amendment rights, incriminating admissions are per se excluded from the prosecution’s case-in-chief when suspects are (1) interrogated, (2) while in custody, (3) without having received Miranda warnings, and (4) without having given valid consent.[3]

Whether individuals are owed Miranda warnings rests upon whether the individual is both interrogated and in custody.[4]  Interrogation includes direct questions about incriminating activity or questions that a reasonable officer would believe would evoke an incriminating answer.[5]  Custody also involves an objective test:  A person is in custody if, given the conditions surrounding the questioning, a reasonable person believes that he is not free to leave.[6]

In conducting the reasonable person test, J.D.B. v. North Carolina addresses the issue of whether a child’s age is relevant to Miranda’s custody determination.[7]         

J.D.B. v. North Carolina: Overview of the Facts

J.D.B., a 13-year old middle school student, was pulled out of class by an officer.  For 45 minutes, J.D.B. was questioned about his involvement in home break-ins—incidents that had occurred off-campus and were unrelated to J.D.B.’s behavior in school.

The officers did not administer Miranda warnings nor explained that J.D.B. was free to leave the school conference room. Two officers and two school administrators were present, yet no one called J.D.B.’s guardian.  When Officer DiCostanzo asked about J.D.B.’s involvement in the neighborhood crimes, the school administrator “urged J.D.B. to ‘do the right thing,’ warning J.D.B. that ‘the truth always comes out in the end.’”[8]  After DiCostanzo told J.D.B. that the officer might need to send him to a pre-trial juvenile detention center, J.D.B. admitted to the crimes.

After J.D.B.’s confession, the officer told J.D.B. that he could choose to not answer the questions or even leave.  J.D.B. agreed that he understood and offered additional information about the crimes.  J.D.B. agreed to write a statement.  When the school day ended, DiCostanzo allowed J.D.B. to go home.

J.D.B. v. North Carolina: Supreme Court’s Analysis

The Supreme Court held that age should be considered in the totality of the circumstances in determining whether a “reasonable person in the suspect’s position would perceive his or her freedom to leave.”[9]

Writing for the majority, Justice Sotomayor explained that our legal history recognizes the differences between juveniles and adults—acknowledging that “children characteristically lack the capacity to exercise mature judgment.”[10]  Children are more impressionable and susceptible to external pressures.[11]  Recognizing that age affects individuals’ decision-making abilities, federal and state legislation grant children limited rights with respect to entering into contracts, marrying, voting, and serving as jurors.[12]  Consequently, juvenile justice rights need to take into account the distinctions between children and adults.[13]

The Court explained that it is impossible to consider whether an interrogation is custodial without considering a child’s age.  “Neither officers nor courts can reasonably evaluate the effect of objective circumstances that, by their nature, are specific to children without accounting for the age of the child subjected to those circumstances.”[14]  At the same time, the Court’s revised test still upholds the purposes behind the objective custody test – providing clarity for officers who are issuing Miranda and eliminating the burden of determining each suspect’s subjective mindsets.  Thereby, the Court held that the age determination is consistent with the objective test:  “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.”[15]

Even if the addition of age gradations into the custody analysis somewhat complicates the objective test, the Court explained that there are greater purposes than simplification.[16]  First, the analysis is not significantly more complex, as common sense dictates that young children are different than juveniles who are different than adults: “Just as police officers are competent to account for other objective circumstances that are a matter of degree such as the length of questioning or the number of officers present, so too are they competent to evaluate the effect of relative age.”[17]  Second, any added complexities are outweighed by the protection of constitutional rights: “[T]o ignore the very real differences between children and adults-would be to deny children the full scope of procedural safeguards that Miranda guarantees to adults.”[18]

Stepping BeyondJ.D.B. v. North Carolina and Further Protecting Children’s Rights

Individuals’ Fifth Amendment rights are violated when they are compelled to give self-incriminating testimony.  While J.D.B. v. North Carolina acknowledges that age is a factor in determining whether a custodial interrogation occurred, this case does not explicitly acknowledge the uniquely coercive nature of the school environment.  In schools, the rights to remain silent or freely leave are not granted to students during the course of everyday interactions and infractions.  School norms expect students to obey rules, respond to inquiries, admit wrong-doings, and seek permission before leaving rooms.[19]  Moreover, students are increasingly being arrested for minor misbehaviors within schools.[20]  Consequently, “a youth’s fear for refusing to obey the directives of an authority figure at school would not be unreasonable.”[21]

When school disciplinary issues are no longer handled internally – but rather externally through law enforcement – procedural protections are needed to off-set the uniquely coercive nature of the school environment.  When “outside police officers come to the school to question a youth about an off-campus crime, those officers should not be permitted to take advantage of the school environment to coerce statements that they would not be able to…obtain through questioning away from school grounds.”[22]

Moreover, the Court should recognize that even if students are issued Miranda rights, these safeguards may not be sufficient to protect children’s rights.  There are obvious developmental differences between young children, juveniles, and adults, including levels of susceptibility to external pressures.[23]  Juveniles “make choices that reflect a propensity to comply with authority figures…when being interrogated by the police.”[24]

Moving forward, the Court should add the coercive nature of the school environment as one factor in determining the custody inquiry.[25]  Second, the Court should acknowledge that children – depending on age – may not truly understand Miranda warnings.  Given children’s developmental differences, “the presence of counsel could even more reliably ensure the voluntariness—and the accuracy—of their confessions.”[26] Ultimately, children do not give up their constitutional rights when they become students; consequently, truly protecting these rights will require additional procedural safeguards.