WASHINGTON — How easy is it for police or judges to put themselves in the
mind of a 13-year-old student whom an officer pulled from class and took to a
closed room for questioning about stolen goods?
The Supreme Court is divided over whether age should be considered in how
police conduct questioning.
In an important test of the constitutional rights of juveniles at the Supreme Court
on Wednesday, the question was whether law enforcement officials would know if
the youth felt free to leave the room or not respond to questions.
The answer is crucial because if the suspect believes he is in custody, police are
required to read him his Miranda rights, informing him he has a right to remain
silent and that anything he says can be used against him.
"Let's take a hypothetical trial judge who is 60 years old and has an IQ that's at
least average," Justice Samuel Alito posed. "You're asking this trial judge to decide
whether ... say, a 14-year-old with an IQ of 85 would (believe) that he or she was
free to leave?"
Alito said such exercise would take "greater imaginative powers" than he had.
During an hour of arguments that revealed the court's ideological split, Alito
suggested that neither police, nor judges reviewing their actions, need consider a
Justice Elena Kagan differed sharply, asking, "Do we need either imaginative
powers or empirical data to know that when a 13-year-old is brought into a room
in his school, taken out of class, four people are there ... that that person is not
going to feel free to take off and leave?"
"Well," Alito said a few beats later, "sympathetic cases make bad law."
The case testing constitutional protection against self-incrimination could affect
myriad situations in which police question youths outside a station house or
elsewhere before an arrest.
The dispute began in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 2005 when seventh-grader J.D.B., as he
is identified in court filings, was taken from class by a police investigator to a
conference room for questioning. An assistant principal and two other school
employees were also there.
J.D.B. had been seen near two homes that had been broken into; a camera,
cellphone and jewelry were among items missing. Under questioning, he said he
had taken some of the items.
Lawyers for J.D.B., who was charged with one count of breaking and entering and
one count of larceny, sought to keep his statements from being used against him
because he had not been read his rights.
A trial judge denied the defense lawyers' motion, saying J.D.B. was not in custody
when he was interrogated at the school.
On appeal Wednesday, J.D.B's lawyer, Barbara Blackman, said judges must weigh
a juvenile's age to decide whether he was effectively "in custody" for the
interrogation, to ensure that a young person was not coerced into a confession.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper countered that judges traditionally
look at how a "reasonable person" would view the situation, and considering age
would fundamentally change the law and provide "no logical stopping point for
adding other characteristics."
Justice Antonin Scalia, who appeared to be in the conservative camp with Alito,
agreed, asking, "If age should be one of the factors, deciding whether the
individual regarded himself as in custody or not, why shouldn't mental deficiency
be so as well?"
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Kagan in emphasizing the relevance of a young
age: "Just as a matter of common sense, how can you say that we're going to
have the same test for this 8-year-old as we would for the 30-year-old?"
Justice Stephen Breyer asked why an officer wouldn't simply err on the side of
telling the suspect he was free to leave or giving the Miranda warning.
"Well, he might not want him to go," Cooper answered, adding that officers have
an interest in getting suspects to talk.
The federal Justice Department has sided with North Carolina, as have 30
states. "Police are ill-equipped to make snap assessments as to how age ... will
impact a person's belief that he is free to leave," the states say in a brief.
Among those siding with J.D.B. is the Juvenile Law Center, which argues that
ignoring a suspect's age "would subject scores of youth to interrogations they
neither wish to participate in nor fully understand ... but cannot, because of their
age, terminate or leave." The group said youths are more likely than adults to
make false confessions.
A ruling in J.D.B. v. North Carolina is likely by late June.
Especially if the principal was present during the interrogation, I could see how a
student wouldn't have realized his right not to comply. Then again, I wouldn't say
I feel ready to defend any sort of precedent handed down here that would
extrapolate to other instances.