Last week, in the case of J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court issued a closely decided ruling that law enforcement and judges need to take the age of suspects into consideration when deciding whether they should be informed of their Miranda rights during police interrogation.
The case involved a 13-year-old seventh-grader who was pulled out of class and questioned by police in a school conference room without being informed of his right to remain silent or consult with a lawyer. According to the Court precedent dating back to the landmark case Miranda v. Arizona (1966), suspects must be informed of their rights if they are in police custody — i.e., not able to end the interview and leave — or if a reasonable person in their situation feels they are not free to leave.
Writing for Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan, Justice Sotomayor stated in the majority opinion that minors must be treated differently by police during interrogation and that there are circumstances where an adult may feel free to end questioning but a child would not. “(C)hildren cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults,” she wrote. “Officers and judges need no imaginative powers, knowledge of developmental psychology, training in cognitive science, or expertise in social and cultural anthropology to account for a child’s age. They simply need the common sense to know that a 7-year-old is not a 13-year-old and neither is an adult.”
Justice Alito penned a dissent, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas, in which he argued that force law enforcement and judges to take age into consideration brings unnecessary complications into what was a straight-forward “reasonable person” test. It opens the door, he contended, to claims that other considerations besides age must be taken into account during interrogations.
You can read more about J.D.B. v. North Carolina, including case briefs, oral arguments and the appellate court decision, in the May 2011 issue of Supreme Court Debates.