Police Questioning of Minors
Everyone knows the iconic phrase "you have the right to remain silent." It is usually the first thing that police tell someone when taking them into custody, and it makes up one of the several rights - commonly known as "Miranda rights" - that people have when in police custody.
Police must notify a person of their Miranda rights before taking them into custody or interrogating them. If they do not, they risk having a judge throw out any statements or admissions that the person in custody might make.
Determining the exact point when police officers have taken someone into custody presents difficulties, however. Obviously, an arrest constitutes police custody, but other situations can amount to police custody even without a formal arrest.
To decide whether or not police have placed a person in custody, courts will examine the facts of a particular case in order to determine whether or not a reasonable person would have felt like they could leave the situation or interrogation. If a reasonable person would have felt free to leave in that situation, then the police have not taken the subject into custody. If a reasonable person would not have felt at liberty to leave, then the police have placed the subject in custody and must notify them of their Miranda rights.
The same rules apply when the situation involves the questioning of minors. The Supreme Court recently expanded on those rules, however, when it decided that the police must take a person's age into account when determining whether the circumstances of a case merit a Miranda notification.
The case the Court ruled upon involved a 13 year-old boy whom the police suspected of involvement with two burglaries. A police officer went to his school, removed him from class and placed him in a conference room with the door closed and two school administrators present.
The officer did not give the boy a Miranda warning or inform him that he could leave the room at any time prior to beginning the questioning. After the boy admitted to participation in the burglaries, however, the officer told the boy that he could refuse to answer questions and leave whenever he wanted. The boy stayed and provided further detail about the crimes.
The Supreme Court held that the trial judge improperly denied the boy's request to throw out the statements he made to police because he did not receive the proper Miranda notification. The Court recognized the fact that, because of their relative immaturity and lack of experience, children "cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults".
Since minors' comprehension of their situation differs from that of adults, the Court reasoned, their understanding of when a questioning constitutes custody will also differ. Minors may experience more acquiescence to authority, and so may require Miranda notifications in situations that would not trigger the Miranda requirement for adults.
The Court did not rule on whether or not the lower court should actually grant the boy's request, however, only stating that the trial court improperly denied the request when it failed to take the boy's age into account. The Court ordered the trial judge to reconsider the question, this time using the boy's age and surroundings as factors in the decision.
Going forward, this case will require police officers to exercise more care during the questioning of minors. Since the Supreme Court has determined that courts must consider a person's age when deciding whether or not that person was in police custody, police officers will need to employ methods that balance an interview subject's age against the other circumstances of the case, such as where the interview takes place and who else is present in the room.
The decision does not require a Miranda notification for every police questioning of a minor, but it does indicate that courts will scrutinize police interviews of juveniles more carefully in the future.