Supreme Court Weighs Miranda Rights For Juveniles

The Supreme Court appeared closely divided Wednesday in a case testing the rights of juveniles. At issue is whether police must advise juveniles of their rights when interrogations are conducted at school.


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The Supreme Court appeared closely divided today in a case testing the rights of juveniles. As NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports, at issue is whether police must advise juveniles of their rights when interrogations are conducted at school.

NINA TOTENBERG: A 13-year-old special education student, identified only as JDB, was pulled out of his classroom in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and escorted to a conference room, where he faced a police investigator, the vice principal and two other school officials.

For about 45 minutes, the investigator interrogated JDB about a string of local burglaries. The boy's legal guardian, his grandmother, was never contacted, and he was not given a Miranda warning. Those are the warnings routinely given by police to criminal suspects once they're taken into custody.

Instead, the policeman told JDB he was free to leave, but the investigator also told the boy that he could get a court order to put JDB in juvenile detention. The boy eventually confessed and helped police recover the stolen items.

His lawyers now seek to have his confession suppressed, contending that because of his youth, JDB's confession was, in essence, coerced and that he should have been advised of his right to remain silent and to have a lawyer.

Representing JDB at the Supreme Court today, public defender Barbara Blackman faced a barrage of skeptical questions, particularly from Justices Scalia and Alito. Police only have to give Miranda warnings to suspects once they're arrested. So Scalia asked: Are you proposing a different Miranda rule for all minors?

Answer: We propose that courts consider the age of a juvenile in determining whether he reasonably could have believed he was free to leave. Justice Scalia: How is a law enforcement officer to know, in advance, whether to give the warning? Justice Alito: Do you think a judge would be able to imagine if I were 13, I would not understand that I could go, and if I were 15, I would understand?

Justice Kagan: Do we really need imaginative powers to know that when a 13-year-old is taken out of class, confronted with four adults, two of them police, and threatened with custody that that person would not feel free to take off and leave?

Justice Kennedy: But how would a Miranda warning work, anyway? It might terrify him. Attorney Blackman: Whether there should be a different form of warning for juveniles is a question for another day, but we can't have children believing they have to cooperate in building a case against themselves.

Arguing the other side of the case, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper told the justices that if judges must consider age in determining whether a Miranda warning should have been given, police officers will be unsure what to do. Justice Breyer: What terrible thing is going to happen if the police officer is unsure? The terrible thing, said Breyer, is that the officer will give the warning.

Justice Ginsberg noted that in JDB's case, the police investigator knew the boy was too young to consent to a search of his home, and the officer got a warrant. So why was the boy old enough to consent to an interrogation without a warning?

Justice Kagan: Do you agree that the disabilities of a blind person or a deaf person should be considered in deciding whether to Mirandize? Answer from Attorney General Cooper: Yes, but those are obvious external circumstances. Justice Kagan: As is youth.

Justice Scalia: We want confessions. It's not cost-free to require warnings. It's a good thing to have the bad guys confess.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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