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J. D. B. v. North Carolina
In Custody or Free to Leave? Supreme Court Clarifies Miranda Rights

by Peter W.D. Wright, Esq. and Pamela Wright, MA, MSW

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Background of the Case
Police Interviews & Interrogations
When Is a Suspect "In Custody"?
Impact of Child's Age

Reversed and Remanded
Analyses and Interpretations from Other Sources

On June 16, 2011, the Supreme Court issued a decision in J. D. B. v. North Carolina (09-11121).

J. D. B. was a thirteen-year-old middle school student who was pulled out of class by a uniformed police officer, and interrogated by a police investigator at school. Before the interrogation, the police did not give him Miranda warnings, an opportunity to call his guardian, nor did they tell him that he was free to leave.

The Supreme Court framed the legal issue as:

“Whether a trial court may consider a juvenile’s age in a Fifth Amendment Miranda custody analysis in evaluating the totality of the objective circumstances and determining whether a reasonable person in the juvenile’s position would have felt he or she was free to terminate police questioning and leave?"

The Court held that age is a relevant factor to consider in determining whether to issue a Miranda warning before questioning a minor.

During “custodial” interrogations, Miranda requires police to advise suspects of their rights, especially their right against self-incrimination. Before a suspect is questioned, he “must be warned that he has the right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed.” Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

A Miranda “warning” is not required if the suspect is not “in custody” during the interrogation.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that a child’s age is relevant to the custody analysis:

“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. 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.”

Background of the Case

When J. D. B. was a 13 year-old seventh grade student, he was first questioned at home about two home break-ins. A few days later, a juvenile investigator came to the school to question J. D. B. again.

A uniformed police officer removed J. D. B. from his classroom, escorted him to a conference room, and closed the door. With two police officers and two school administrators in the room, J. D. B. was questioned for 30 to 45 minutes. Before questioning, “J. D. B. was given neither Miranda warnings, nor the opportunity to speak with his grandmother. Nor was he informed that he was free to leave the room.”

J. D. B. denied any wrongdoing and explained that he had been in the neighborhood where the break-ins occurred “because he was seeking work mowing lawns … the assistant principal urged J. D. B. to ‘do the right thing,’ warning J. D. B. that ‘the truth always comes out in the end.’”

The police investigator warned the boy that he may seek a “secure custody order.”

“When J. D. B. asked what a secure custody order was, [the investigator] explained that ‘it’s where you get sent to juvenile detention before court.’”

After the investigator said he could be sent to juvenile detention, J. D. B. confessed that he and a friend were responsible for the break-ins. After he confessed, the investigator informed the boy “that he could refuse to answer the investigator’s questions and was free to leave … ”

Juvenile petitions were filed against J. D. B. for breaking and entering and larceny. His public defender moved to suppress his statements, arguing that J. D. B. had been “interrogated by police in a custodial setting without being afforded Miranda warning[s].” The trial court denied this motion, holding that J. D. B. was not in custody during the interrogation at school, and that his statements were voluntary.

The Court adjudicated J. D. B. delinquent.

“A divided panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed ... The North Carolina Supreme Court held, over two dissents, that J. D. B. was not in custody when he confessed” and declined to consider “the age … of an individual subjected to questioning by police.” In re J. D. B., 363 N.C. 664, 672, 686 S.E. 2d 135, 140 (2009)

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the Miranda custody analysis includes consideration of a juvenile suspect’s age. 562 U.S. __ (2010)

Police Interviews and Interrogations

The following statements are taken from the majority decision:

“Any police interview of an individual suspected of a crime has ‘coercive aspects to it,’” Oregon v. Mathiason, 429 U.S. 492, 495 (1977).

“By its very nature, custodial police interrogation entails ‘inherently compelling pressures,’” Miranda v Arizona, 384 U. S. at 467.

“… the pressure of custodial interrogation is so immense that it ‘can induce a frighteningly high percentage of people to confess to crimes they never committed,’” Corley v. United States, 556 U.S. __ (2009) (slip op., at 16)

“Because the coercive nature of custodial interrogation ‘blurs the line between voluntary and involuntary statements,’ this Court in Miranda adopted … measures designed to safeguard the constitutional guarantee against self-incrimination. Prior to questioning, a suspect ‘must be warned that he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed.’”  384 U. S., at 444

“… if a suspect makes a statement during custodial interrogation, the Government must show … that the defendant ‘voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently’ waived his rights.” Miranda, 384 U. S., at 444, 475-476; Dickerson, 530 U. S., at 443-444.

When is a Suspect “In Custody”?

Whether a subject is “in custody” for Miranda purposes is determined by the answers to two questions:

“… first, what were the circumstances surrounding the interrogation; and second, given those circumstances, would a reasonable person have felt he or she was at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave.”

To answer these questions, police and courts must “examine all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation … including any circumstance that ‘would have affected how a reasonable person’ in the suspect’s position ‘would perceive his or her freedom to leave …’” Stansbury, 511 U. S. at 322.

Impact of Child's Age

In this case, the North Carolina Supreme Court “… contends that a child’s age has no place in the custody analysis, no matter how young the child …We cannot agree,” wrote Justice Sotomayor.

“A child’s age is far ‘more than a chronological fact.’” Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U. S. 104, 115 (1982) … it is a fact that ‘generates commonsense conclusions about behavior and perception,’ Alvarado, 541 U. S. at 674.

“We have observed that children ‘generally are less mature and responsible than adults,’ Eddings, 455 U.S. at 115; that they ‘often lack the experience, perspective, and judgment to recognize and avoid choices that could be detrimental to them,’ Bellotti v. Baird, 443 U. S. 622, 635; that they ‘are more vulnerable or susceptible to … outside pressures’ than adults, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551, 569.”

“In some situations, a child’s age ‘would have affected how a reasonable person’ in the suspect’s position would perceive his or her freedom to leave.” Stansbury, 511 U. S. at 325.

Common law reflects “the reality that children are not adults.” Because children “lack the capacity to exercise mature judgment and possess an incomplete ability to understand the world around them,” the law limits or disqualifies them from various activities - managing property, entering into a binding contract, and marrying without parental consent.

Because “our history is replete with laws and judicial recognition” that children cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults, there is “no justification for taking a different course” on this legal issue, Eddings, 455 U. S. at 115-116.

“Reviewing the question de novo today, we hold that so long as the child’s age is 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 [Miranda] test.”

“To hold, as the State requests, that a child’s age is never relevant to whether a suspect has been taken into custody – and thus to ignore the very real differences between children and adults – would be to deny children the full scope of the procedural safeguards that Miranda guarantees to adults.”

Reversed and Remanded

“The question remains whether J. D. B. was in custody when the police interrogated him. We remand for the state courts to address that question, this time taking into account of all of the relevant circumstances of the interrogation, including J. D. B.’s age at the time. The judgment of the North Carolina Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”

The full text of the decision in J. D. B. v. North Carolina, including a 3 page Syllabus, 18 page Opinion by Justice Sotomayor (joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan, and 19 page Dissent by Justice Alito (joined by Justices Roberts, Scalia and Thomas) is posted on Wrightslaw at:


Brief for Petitioner J.D.B.

Brief for Respondent North Carolina

Reply Brief for Petitioner

Amicus Briefs

J. D. B v. North Carolina: Analyses and Interpretations from Other Sources (please note that these links may disappear in the future)

Opinion Analysis: Children’s Age and Miranda by Lyle Dennison, Scotusblog
“Repeatedly citing 'common sense' as its guiding light, a closely divided Supreme Court ruled Thursday that police must take into account the age of a youth they are going to question, in order to decide whether to warn the boy or girl about their constitutional rights — including the right to remain silent.” More

Supreme Court Backs Youths' Miranda Rights by Mark Walsh, School Law Blog, Education Week
“While the legal issue is one more for the police and courts that review their actions, there are lessons in the decision for school administrators,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director and legal counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. More

"To the extent that administrators are going to cooperate with or invite the police into the school setting, I do think that they need to recognize that students have special rights with regard to custodial settings." More

Supreme Court Says That Age Matters in Police Questioning by David Savage, Los Angeles Times
“The Supreme Court bolstered the rights of juveniles for the second year in a row, deciding by a 5-4 vote that police officers who remove a student from class for questioning about a crime usually must warn him or her of the right to remain silent.” More

High Court: Age Must Be Considered in Interrogation by Nina Totenberg, NPR
“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.” More

Supreme Court: Children are different when it comes to Miranda warning against self incrimination by Robert Barnes, Washington Post
“Police must be sensitive to the age of child suspects when deciding whether to inform them of their Miranda right against self-incrimination, an ideologically split Supreme Court ruled Thursday.” More

Supreme Court Expands Juveniles' Miranda Rights by Nathan Koppell, Wall Street Journal Law Blog
“With little time left before their summer recess, and many cases left to decide, the Supreme Court worked overtime today, releasing five opinions ... For our money, the most interesting ruling was J.D.B. v North Carolina, which concerns the Miranda rights of juveniles.” More

Supreme Court: When Police Question Children, Age Matters by Warren Richey, Christian Science Monitor
“In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court said such special consideration is warranted when police seek to interrogate a child because children are less able to assert their right to end the encounter or even understand the full significance of the confrontation with police ... A reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the majority opinion." More.

Created: 06/19/11
Last revised: 06/21/11

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