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Top Court Releases Options On Criminal Cases

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Top Court Releases Options On Criminal Cases

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Top Court Releases Options On Criminal Cases

Top Court Releases Options On Criminal Cases

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The Supreme Court handed down opinions in a variety of criminal cases Thursday. In a unanimous ruling, the justices said judges cannot give extra jail time in hopes of rehabilitation. They also ruled on a case involving a 13-year-old boy who was questioned by police without being read his Miranda rights.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The Supreme Court today broadened the use of the Miranda warning for suspects. It extended it to children being questioned by police in school. In a 5-4 vote, the court said that age must be taken into account when determining whether or not a suspect understands that he or she is free to leave or remain silent in the face of questioning.

As NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports, the case of a 13-year-old North Carolina boy, known only as J.D.B., will likely change police practices across the country.

NINA TOTENBERG: J.D.B., a special education seventh grader, was pulled out of his classroom by a uniformed officer and escorted to a conference room where he faced a police investigator, the assistant principal and two other school officials.

For more than a half hour, the investigator interrogated him 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.

While the policeman later told J.D.B. he was free to leave, he also told the boy he could get a court order to put him in juvenile detention, and the school's assistant principal advised the boy to do the right thing.

J.D.B. eventually confessed and helped police recover stolen items. At trial, his lawyer tried to get the confession thrown out on the grounds that given the boy's age and circumstances, the confession was, in essence, coerced, and that J.D.B. should have been advised of his right to an attorney and to remain silent.

The state countered that the boy had been free to leave, that he therefore was not in custody and that age should not be considered in determining whether police warn suspects of their rights.

Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City policeman, prosecutor and now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says the case gives a real world look at how police operate.

Professor EUGENE O'DONNELL (John Jay College of Criminal Justice): The investigator in the case took great pains to orchestrate an environment where he would not have to give the Miranda warnings. A lot of people think the cops are dying to take that Miranda card out and read the rights to suspects, but in fact, the police are very reticent about doing that.

TOTENBERG: After today, though, they'll have to be less reticent when dealing with minors. For the first time, the Supreme Court has ruled that the age of a child subjected to police questioning is relevant. Writing for the five-member court majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said there is no reason for police officers or courts to blind themselves to the commonsense reality that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstance would not.

Our history is replete with laws and judicial recognition that children cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults, said Sotomayor. Joining her in the majority were Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the dissent for the court's four most conservative justices. They said, essentially, that the beauty of the Miranda rule is that it is simple and objective. A suspect must be Mirandized once he is in police custody. Today's ruling, said Alito, blurs that line and is fundamentally at odds with the clarity of the Miranda rule.

Reaction to the decision was predictably mixed. John Charles Thomas, who represents the National District Attorneys Association, says it will significantly change police practices in dealing with juveniles.

Mr. JOHN CHARLES THOMAS (National District Attorneys Association): The pressure of the decision on people who do this on a daily basis with many, many people being interrogated is basically to err on the side of caution, to give the Miranda warning almost every time.

TOTENBERG: George Washington University criminal law professor Steven Saltzburg agrees.

Professor STEVEN SALTZBURG (Criminal Law Professor, George Washington University): The concern here is that now you're going to have to take into account whether somebody is seven or nine or 13 or 16, and how does the police officer do that? And I think the answer is when in doubt, give Miranda warnings.

TOTENBERG: Steven Drizen, director of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Conviction, calls today's ruling huge because this is the first time the Supreme Court has applied Miranda to an interrogation that takes place in the schools, often the first place that police go to locate and question juvenile suspects. Without legal protections, says Drizen, juveniles often make false confessions.

Indeed, recent studies have demonstrated that juveniles account for fully one-third of wrongful convictions based on false confessions.

Mr. STEVEN DRIZEN (Director, Center on Wrongful Conviction, Northwestern University): The risks that when police use the same tactics that they do with adults on children, that a child will falsely confess are exponentially higher.

TOTENBERG: Unanswered by today's Supreme Court decision is how to determine whether juveniles who are given a Miranda warning will understand it and what, if anything, police must do to make sure kids who are questioned do understand their rights.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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