Supreme Court Holds That Age of a Child Subjected to Police Questioning at School is Relevant to Miranda Custody Analysis — J.D.B. v. North Carolina

Posted on June 17, 2011

 J.D.B. v. North Carolina, Case No. 09-11121 (June 16, 2011)


This case presents the question whether the age of a child subjected to police questioning is relevant to thecustody analysis of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U. S. 436 (1966).  Petitioner J. D. B. was a 13-year-old, seventh-grade student attending class at Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina when he was removed from his class-room by a uniformed police officer, escorted to a closed-door conference room, and questioned by police for at leasthalf an hour. 

This was the second time that police questioned J. D. the span of a week.  Five days earlier, two home break-ins occurred, and various items were stolen.  Police stopped and questioned J. D. B. after he was seen behind a residence in the neighborhood where the crimes occurred. That same day, police also spoke to J. D. B.’s grand-mother—his legal guardian—as well as his aunt.

Police later learned that a digital camera matching thedescription of one of the stolen items had been found at J. D. B.’s middle school and seen in J. D. B.’s possession. Investigator DiCostanzo, the juvenile investigator with the local police force who had been assigned to the case, went to the school to question J. D. B. Upon arrival,DiCostanzo informed the uniformed police officer on detailto the school (a so-called school resource officer), the assis-tant principal, and an administrative intern that he wasthere to question J. D. B. about the break-ins. AlthoughDiCostanzo asked the school administrators to verify J. D. B.’s date of birth, address, and parent contact in-formation from school records, neither the police offi-cers nor the school administrators contacted J. D. B.’s grandmother.

The uniformed officer interrupted J. D. B.’s afternoonsocial studies class, removed J. D. B. from the classroom, and escorted him to a school conference room.  There, J. D. B. was met by DiCostanzo, the assistant principal, and the administrative intern. The door to the conference room was closed. With the two police officers and the two administrators present, J. D. B. was questioned for the next 30 to 45 minutes. Prior to the commencement of questioning, J. D. B. was given neither Miranda warnings nor the opportunity to speak to his grandmother. Nor was he informed that he was free to leave the room.

Questioning began with small talk—discussion of sports and J. D. B.’s family life. DiCostanzo asked, and J. D. B. agreed, to discuss the events of the prior weekend. Deny-ing any wrongdoing, J. D. B. explained that he had been inthe neighborhood where the crimes occurred because hewas seeking work mowing lawns. DiCostanzo pressed J. D. B. for additional detail about his efforts to obtain work; asked J. D. B. to explain a prior incident, when one of the victims returned home to find J. D. B. behind her house; and confronted J. D. B. with the stolen camera. The assistant principal urged J. D. B. to “do the right thing,” warning J. D. B. that “the truth always comes outin the end.” 

Eventually, J. D. B. asked whether he would “still be in trouble” if he returned the “stuff.”  In response,DiCostanzo explained that return of the stolen items would be helpful, but “this thing is going to court” regardless. (“[W]hat’s done is done[;] now you need to help yourself by making it right”).  DiCostanzo then warned that he may need to seek asecure custody order if he believed that J. D. B. would continue to break into other homes. When J. D. B. asked what a secure custody order was, DiCostanzo explained that “it’s where you get sent to juvenile detention beforecourt.”

After learning of the prospect of juvenile detention, J. D. B. confessed that he and a friend were responsible for the break-ins. DiCostanzo only then informed J. D. B. that he could refuse to answer the investigator’s questions and that he was free to leave.  Asked whether he understood, J. D. B. nodded and provided further detail, including information about the location of the stolen items. Eventually J. D. B. wrote a statement, at DiCostanzo’s request. When the bell rang indicating the end of the schoolday, J. D. B. was allowed to leave to catch the bus home.


A child’s age properly informs Miranda’s custody analysis.


Custodial police interrogation entails “inherently compelling pressures,” Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U. S. 436, 467, that “can induce a frighteningly high percentage of people to confess to crimes theynever committed,” Corley v. United States, 556 U. S. ___.  Recent studies suggest that risk is all the more acute when the subject ofcustodial interrogation is a juvenile. Whether a suspect is “in cus-tody” for Miranda purposes is an objective determination involving two discrete inquires: “first, what were the circumstances surround-ing the interrogation; and second, given those circumstances, would areasonable person have felt he or she was at liberty to terminate theinterrogation and leave.” Thompson v. Keohane, 516 U. S. 99, 112 (footnote omitted). The police and courts must “examine all of thecircumstances surrounding the interrogation,” Stansbury v. California, 511 U. S. 318, 322, including those that “would have affectedhow a reasonable person” in the suspect’s position “would perceive his or her freedom to leave,” id., at 325. However, the test involves no consideration of the particular suspect’s “actual mindset.” Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U. S. 652, 667. By limiting analysis to ob-jective circumstances, the test avoids burdening police with the taskof anticipating each suspect’s idiosyncrasies and divining how those particular traits affect that suspect’s subjective state of mind. Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U. S. 420, 430–431.

In some circumstances, a child’s age “would have affected how areasonable person” in the suspect’s position “would perceive his or her freedom to leave.” Stansbury, 511 U. S., at 325. Courts can ac-count for that reality without doing any damage to the objective na-ture of the custody analysis. A child’s age is far “more than a chrono-logical fact.” Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U. S. 104, 115. It is a fact that “generates commonsense conclusions about behavior and percep-tion,” Alvarado, 541 U. S., at 674, that apply broadly to children as a class. Children “generally are less mature and responsible than adults,” Eddings, 455 U. S., at 115; 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; and they “are more vulnerable or susceptible to . . . outside pressures” than adults, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551, 569. In the specificcontext of police interrogation, events that “would leave a man coldand unimpressed can overawe and overwhelm a” teen. Haley v. Ohio, 332 U. S. 596, 599. The law has historically reflected the same as-sumption that children characteristically lack the capacity to exercisemature judgment and possess only an incomplete ability to under-stand the world around them. Legal disqualifications on children as a class—e.g., limitations on their ability to marry without parentalconsent—exhibit the settled understanding that the differentiatingcharacteristics of youth are universal.

Given a history “replete with laws and judicial recognition” that children cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults, Eddings, 455 U. S., at 115–116, there is no justification for taking a differentcourse here. So long as the child’s age was known to the officer at the time of the interview, or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, including age as part of the custody analysis re-quires officers neither to consider circumstances “unknowable” to them, Berkemer, 468 U. S., at 430, nor to“ ‘“anticipat[e] the frailtiesor idiosyncrasies” of the particular suspect being questioned.” ’ ” Alvarado, 541 U. S., at 662. Precisely because childhood yields objec-tive conclusions, considering age in the custody analysis does not in-volve a determination of how youth affects a particular child’s subjective state of mind. In fact, were the court precluded from tak-ing J. D. B.’s youth into account, it would be forced to evaluate the circumstances here through the eyes of a reasonable adult, when some objective circumstances surrounding an interrogation at school are specific to children. These conclusions are not undermined by the Court’s observation in Alvarado that accounting for a juvenile’s age in the Miranda custody analysis “could be viewed as creating a sub-jective inquiry,” 541 U. S., at 668. The Court said nothing aboutwhether such a view would be correct under the law or whether it simply merited deference under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, 110 Stat. 1214. So long as the child’s age was known to the officer, or would have been objectively apparent toa reasonable officer, including age in the custody analysis is consis-tent with the Miranda test’s objective nature. This does not mean that a child’s age will be a determinative, or even a significant, factor in every case, but it is a reality that courts cannot ignore.

The Court remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether J.D.B. was in custody, while he was at school, when the police interrogated him.  The Court directed the trial court to take J.D.B.’s age in to consideration in determing whether or not he was in custody.

Comments are closed.