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High Court: Age Must Be Considered In Interrogation

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
June 16, 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court has broadened use of the Miranda warning for suspects, extending it to children questioned by police in school. By a 5-to-4 vote, the court said for the first time on Thursday that age must be considered in determining whether a suspect is aware of his or her rights.

This case, involving a 13-year-old North Carolina boy identified only as J.D.B., will likely change police practices across the country. Experts say that police questioning, particularly in school, can no longer be presumed to be legally permissible without advising a youngster of his or her rights.

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 half an hour, the investigator interrogated J.D.B. about a string of local burglaries. The boy’s legal guardian, his grandmother, was never contacted, and he was not given a Miranda warning — the warnings routinely given by police to criminal suspects once they are taken into custody.

While the police officer later told J.D.B. that he was free to leave, he also told the boy that the police 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 the stolen items. At trial, his lawyer tried to get the confession thrown out on the grounds that given J.D.B.’s age and the circumstances of the interrogation, the confession was, in essence, coerced, and that the boy 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. The North Carolina courts agreed.

Court’s Ruling

But on Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time 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 circumstances” would not. Indeed, Sotomayor said that a student required by law to attend school, and who is subject to disciplinary action for disobedience, might well believe that he or she must answer all police questions.

“Our history is replete with laws and judicial recognition that children cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults,” said Sotomayor, concluding that because children are different — less mature, less capable of judgment and more susceptible to influence — police and judges must consider age in determining whether a child should have been advised of his or her legal rights.

Joining her in the majority were Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the dissent for the court’s four most conservative justices. The dissenters 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 — in short, when he cannot leave. Thursday’s ruling, wrote Alito, “blurs” that line and “is fundamentally at odds” with the clarity of the Miranda rule.

Mixed Reaction

Reaction to the decision was mixed, but police, prosecutors and juvenile justice advocates alike said the decision would require police in many places to revamp their practices in dealing with juveniles.

“The pressure” on police now “is basically to err on the side of caution, to give the Miranda warning almost every time,” said John Charles Thomas, who represents the National District Attorneys Association.

Stephen A. Saltzburg, a professor of criminal law at George Washington University, agreed.

“The concern here,” said Saltzburg, “is that now you are going to have to take into account whether someone is 7 or 9 or 13 or 16, and how is the police officer going to do that? I think the answer is: When in doubt, give Miranda warnings.”

But it is unclear how Thursday’s decision will affect the way police interact with student-suspects. “In many places, there’s a routine practice of trying to contact a parent,” said Saltzburg. “But in many [other] instances, if the parent is not available, the police have good reason not to want to delay, and in some instances, the fact is that they don’t want the parent present. And unless the law requires the parent to be present, they will proceed with an interrogation.”

The case gives a “real world” look at how police operate, says Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City Police officer, prosecutor, defense counsel, and now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Pointing to the facts of this case, he noted that the police investigator “took great pains to orchestrate an environment where he would not have to give the Miranda warnings,” said O’Donnell. “A lot of people think that cops are dying to take out that Miranda card and read the rights to suspects. But in fact the police are very reticent to do that. They rely on .. getting people to talk.”

Steven Drizen, legal director at Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Conviction, calls Thursday’s ruling “huge.”

“This is the first time the court has applied Miranda to an interrogation that takes place in the schools, which is the site of many interrogations of children,” said Drizen. “This is huge because when police go to locate suspects who are children, the first place they often go is to their school. And many times, police officers will question suspects at the school under the belief that if they do so, then they don’t have to apply Miranda because it’s not a station-house interrogation. … It’s been a loophole … and this decision will close that loophole.”

Indeed, “juveniles make up a disproportionate number of those who falsely confess,” added Drizen, citing recent studies that demonstrate juveniles account for fully one-third of wrongful convictions based on false confessions. “The pressures of police interrogations weigh much more heavily on a juvenile suspect than they do on an adult suspect” leading to “exponentially higher” false confession rates among juveniles, said Drizen.

Decision’s Possible Impact

Child advocates were thrilled with Thursday’s ruling. “The court [issued] a resounding statement that whether we look to simple common sense or whether we look to research, there’s no question that the characteristics of age and adolescence are relevant when we think of children’s rights under the Constitution,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro said that the decision must be considered in light of the trend of referring disciplinary actions to the courts instead of the principal’s office. “Increasingly, misbehavior that used to be treated as a school disciplinary problem is now treated as a law enforcement problem,” said Shapiro. “At a minimum, therefore, we have to ensure that students’ rights are protected in those circumstances, and the decision is a step in that direction.”

Others, like George Washington University’s Saltzburg wonder whether giving Miranda warnings to kids will make any difference. “The reality,” said Saltzburg, “is that even with Miranda warnings, it’s doubtful that young people understand exactly what it all means and understand their choices, and so in the long run, I doubt that there will be many fewer confessions because of this opinion.”

Indeed, the Supreme Court specifically left unanswered the question of whether a formal Miranda warning will suffice when given to a child, and what, if anything, police must do to make sure kids who are questioned do understand their rights.

Chemical Weapons Treaty

In other decisions handed down on Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that citizens, not just states, can challenge the constitutionality of federal laws implementing the chemical weapons treaty.

The court’s ruling came in a case with facts worthy of a soap opera. Carol Anne Bond discovered that her husband had fathered a child with her best friend and vowed revenge. Over an eight-month period, she placed toxic chemicals on the mistress’ front doorknob, car handle and mailbox. The substance, however, was easily visible and the mistress suffered only a minor injury to her thumb.

When local police failed to act, the federal government stepped in and charged Bond with violating the chemical weapons treaty-enactment laws. She was sentenced to six years in prison.

But Bond challenged the treaty-enactment laws, contending they amounted to an unconstitutional federal usurpation by of states rights.

A federal appeals court in Pennsylvania rejected the argument, ruling that only a state can assert that the federal government is infringing its sovereignty.

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed that decision. The high court said Bond could pursue her claim, but gave no hint that she was right in her states’ rights claim.

Writing for the court, Justice Kennedy said that “[f]idelity to principles of federalism is not for the states alone to vindicate” and that “claims of individuals … have been the principal source of judicial decisions concerning separation of powers and checks and balances.” Writing in a concurring opinion, Justice Ginsburg said that Bond “had a personal right not to be convicted under a constitutionally invalid law” and therefore had the right to challenge this law.

Prison Sentences

In another criminal law decision, the court ruled unanimously that a federal judge cannot impose a longer prison sentence than what the sentencing guidelines permit simply to promote rehabilitation. In the case before the court, a judge imposed a 51-month sentence on Alejandra Tapia for smuggling illegal immigrants into the country. The sentence was at the outer edge of the sentencing guidelines, and the judge said he was imposing the longer sentence so that the defendant could qualify for all 500 hours of a federal drug-treatment program. The Supreme Court, however, said the judge went too far.

Writing for the court, Justice Kagan noted that for nearly a century federal law was based on the use of sentencing and parole to promote rehabilitation. But Congress, she added, abandoned that approach to focus more on retribution, deterrence and incapacitation. While rehabilitation may be considered, she said, Congress made clear that “imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting rehabilitation.”

Legality Of Searches

In a fourth criminal law decision, the court upheld the conviction of an Alabama man, though the justices agreed the search that produced the incriminating evidence was illegal.

The case arose as a result of a shift in the court’s approach to vehicle searches conducted at the time of an arrest of a passenger in the car. In this case, police conducting a routine traffic stop arrested the driver of a car for drunken driving and a passenger for giving a false name. The police then searched the car and found a gun in the passenger’s jacket pocket. The passenger, Willie Gene Davis, was indicted on one count of a illegal possession of a firearm by a felon. The lower courts, following the existing law at the time, ruled that the search was legal. But while Davis’ appeal was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that searches like this one are illegal.

On Thursday the court nonetheless refused to disturb the firearm conviction, declaring that at the time the search was conducted, police relied in good faith on existing law. The court said that since the rule that generally excludes illegally obtained evidence is designed to deter police misconduct, and there was no misconduct here, it would therefore serve no purpose to overturn the conviction.

The 7-to-2 ruling was written by Justice Samuel Alito. Justices Breyer and Ginsburg dissented. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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