By Alexandra Schimmer
In J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that a child’s age is relevant to the Miranda custody analysis.
Police removed 13-year-old J.D.B. from his classroom and questioned him about items stolen in two home invasions. Without administering Miranda warnings, and with the door closed, the investigator questioned him for 30 to 45 minutes.
Initially, J.D.B. denied any wrongdoing, but eventually asked if he would still be in trouble if he returned “the stuff.” The investigator explained that this would help, but that the matter was “going to court” regardless.
The investigator then explained the process of juvenile detention. At that point, J.D.B. admitted that he and a friend had committed the break-ins. Only then did the investigator tell J.D.B. that he could refuse to answer questions and was free to leave. J.D.B. said he understood and repeated his confession in writing.
J.D.B. later was charged in juvenile proceedings, during which he moved to suppress his statements. He argued he had been interrogated in a custodial setting without Miranda warnings and that the statements were involuntary.
The state courts refused to suppress the statements and declined to find J.D.B.’s age relevant in assessing whether he was in police custody for Miranda purposes.
The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, concluding that a child’s age would affect how a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would perceive his or her freedom to leave.
“A reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go,” the Supreme Court said. “We think it clear that courts can account for that reality without doing any damage to the objective nature of the custody analysis.”
The justices reversed the lower court’s ruling and remanded the case, directing the state courts to reassess whether J.D.B. was in custody, now taking his age into account.
Alexandra Schimmer is Ohio’s solicitor general and heads the Attorney General’s Appeals Section.