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Supreme Court Rules 5-4 That Age Matters in Miranda Warnings

June 16, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that juveniles suspected of a crime are entitled to Miranda protections when questioned by police at school. Ray Suarez discusses the ruling's significance with Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The U.S. Supreme Court said today that age matters when it comes to police interrogation.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Justices ruled 5-4 that juveniles suspected of a crime are entitled to Miranda protections when questioned at school by the police.

Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal” is here to explain the significance of the decision.

Marcia, remind us of what was involved in this case and how it got to the high court.

MARCIA COYLE, “The National Law Journal”: The police suspected that a 13-year-old boy was involved in two break-ins in a residential neighborhood. And they went to his middle school.

They had one of the uniformed officers that actually served at the school take him out of the classroom and take him to a conference room within the school. In that conference room, which was a closed-door conference room, was — were two police officers, an assistant principal and an administrative intern.

The police officer who suspected the boy of being involved began the questioning, questioned him for about 30 to 45 minutes, knew how old he was. After the boy admitted that he was involved in the break-ins, along with a friend, the police officer then told him that he had a right not to answer any more questions and was free to leave.

The boy’s lawyer later tried to have the boy’s confession statements suppressed at trial, claiming that his Miranda rights had been violated.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in the original argument, there seemed to be two thrusts, one over whether the boy was, in fact, in custody, if he was being questioned at school by police, and whether questioning a boy is different from questioning an adult, a man.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s right, Ray.

And those two threads came together in the 5-4 decision. Miranda rights are triggered if you or I are in custody. And custody is a formal arrest or a restraint on our freedom, such that we don’t feel we can leave, or free to leave, or it’s very similar to a formal arrest.

So, this case was really about — essentially about whether the boy was in custody, whether his age is a factor to consider when you’re determining that someone is in custody.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in the opinion, one quote jumped out at me, “Our history is replete with laws and judicial recognition that children cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults.”

Is that how they ruled, basically?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. Justice Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion.

And she said that it is basically a matter of common sense that a child who is being questioned by police is not going to feel free to leave, as an adult would feel if in the same situation or circumstances.

She said age — a child’s age is more than a chronological fact, that we know for a fact that children don’t have mature judgments, that they don’t possess a complete understanding of the world around them. So, age has to be a factor in determining whether this child believes he or she is free to leave and is in custody.

RAY SUAREZ: Who joined Justice Sotomayor to make that five-vote majority?

MARCIA COYLE: Justices Stephen Breyer, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Justice Elena Kagan.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Kennedy was the swing vote…

MARCIA COYLE: He was the key vote here.

And it is interesting to note that he has always, in the criminal context, particularly the death penalty, he has had a special solicitude for the problems of youth juveniles in the criminal justice system.

RAY SUAREZ: And what did the dissenters have to say? And who was their leader?

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Alito wrote the main dissent. And he was joined by the chief justice and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

He said Miranda was a bright-line rule for police, something that was easy to apply. And when you looked at whether someone was in custody, it was an objective analysis. You didn’t bring in subjective factors like age. He felt that the majority hadn’t shown why age was different from, say, education, intelligence.

He said that he felt also that what was going to happen here was that you would soon see defense lawyers and maybe even prosecutors arguing in cases, in trials that other factors, personal characteristics, were important in determining custody.

He also felt that the decision wasn’t necessary. He felt juveniles’ rights were protected a little later in the process. Their lawyers could claim that a confession wasn’t voluntary. Justice Sotomayor, though, said that Miranda exists precisely because the courts have found that the voluntary test isn’t adequate.

RAY SUAREZ: So, where does this leave a policeman somewhere in America about to arrest a juvenile? Must you always give that person a Miranda warning?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, if you say arrest, then yes, because an arrest triggers custody, triggers Miranda.

Police have to consider all the circumstances and age is going to be one of them in determining whether this person is in custody, as do courts have to consider that now. It’s my understanding that, in a number of states, there are police policies that direct police to consider age right now.

If you believe Justice Alito, he feels it’s going to be very difficult for police, especially in the heat of the moment, to know what somebody’s age is. If you believe Justice Sotomayor, it’s not. It’s common sense. You don’t need a degree in advanced psychology to know that a 3-year-old is not a 7-year-old, and neither is an adult, she said.

RAY SUAREZ: But at somewhere along the line, there’s going to be a kid who won’t understand such a warning and a kid who will.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s true.

But in — in terms of the test for determining whether that kid is in custody, the officer has to make a judgment about age. Either the officer knows the age, or it’s reasonably evident from the child in front of him or her what basically the age is.

RAY SUAREZ: Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal,” thanks for talking to us.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Ray.