Close U.S. Supreme Court Decision Expands Miranda Rights for Children

Everyone has heard the Miranda warning in movies and television shows: You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can and will be used against you; you have the right to talk to an attorney; and if you can't afford one, one will be appointed for you.

The warning was crafted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona to enforce the Fifth Amendment guaranty of protection from self-incrimination. The Miranda warning must be given before questioning a suspect in police custody.

Being in police custody is highly stressful and sometimes people under the pressure of police questioning make involuntary or coerced incriminating confessions, some true and some false.

Miranda requires that before questioning a suspect, an officer must objectively decide whether the detainee has been formally arrested, or if a reasonable person under the circumstances would feel he or she was not free to leave. If the answer to either question is "yes," the person is considered to be in custody for purposes of Miranda and must be given the warning before questioning.

Miranda is an objective guide for police to look at the circumstances and decide if a reasonable person would think he or she were in custody, without considering unique characteristics of the actual detainee.

J.D.B. V. North Carolina

In June 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified how police must analyze whether the Miranda warning should be given to children.

J.D.B. was a 13-year-old seventh grader removed from his North Carolina classroom by a uniformed police officer, and intensely questioned about local criminal activity in a closed room by two officers and two school administrators. The adults did not call J.D.B.'s grandmother (his legal guardian), nor did they read him his Miranda rights.

After the specter of juvenile detention was raised, the youth confessed. He was ultimately found delinquent over the objections of his lawyer that his confession was not admissible because it was made during custodial questioning without Miranda warnings. North Carolina's higher courts affirmed the conviction and the case landed before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lauded by the criminal defense community and children's rights advocates, the court in a 5-4 decision by Justice Sonia Sotomayor says that one personal characteristic that should be taken into account in determining whether a potential suspect is in custody for Miranda purposes is the age of a child, if the police know how old the child is, or age is "objectively apparent."

The opinion relies on "common sense" and points out that a child could reasonably feel he or she could not leave when questioned by adults, especially police, and that an adult's reasonable perception of the circumstance might be different.

Seen as a split along ideological lines, Justice Samuel Alito wrote the dissent, which objects to any consideration of a personal attributes. The dissent argues that if police can take children's ages into account, why not other subjective characteristics like intelligence or cultural backgrounds? The dissent fears that any step away from a strict "reasonable person" analysis will be too confusing for the police to apply in the heat of the moment.

This case is important to the criminal defense community, school administrators and law enforcement. If you are a youth or a parent, be sure to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately to protect your rights if you find yourself in this situation.