USA TODAY US Edition
Justices debate rights of juveniles
Court is split on role of age in rules of interrogation
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?
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 suspect’s age.
Justice Elena Kagan differed sharply, asking, “Do we need either imagi- native 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 fun- damentally 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, howcan 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.