Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sometimes the Supreme Court Gets It Right

After delving into the Clarence Thomas scandal (here and here) and bemoaning the negative impression even our fellow liberals often have of lawyers and the legal system, it’s nice to have something positive to report for a change:

Repeatedly citing “common sense” as its guiding light, a closely divided Supreme Court ruled Thursday that police must take into account the age of a youth they are going to question, in order to decide whether to warn the boy or girl about their constitutional rights — including the right to remain silent. The Court majority, speaking at length about the vulnerability of children, insisted it was not abandoning the simplicity of the “Miranda warnings” requirement. …

Basically, what the Court did was to add to the Miranda equation a requirement that, if an officer knows at the time the actual age of the youth the police are about to question, or a suspect’s young age would have been apparent at the time, the officer must take that into account in deciding for or against a rights warning. The Court did not say at what young age warnings would have to be given, nor did it say just how the officer was to translate a conclusion about a suspect’s age into a decision to give — or not to give — warnings.

The case is J.D.B. v. North Carolina, No. 09-11121, and you can download the opinion in .pdf format here.

The Court’s opinion explains the facts of the case this way:

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 classroom by a uniformed police officer, escorted to a closed door conference room, and questioned by police for at least half an hour.

This was the second time that police questioned J. D. B. in 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 grandmother—his legal guardian—as well as his aunt.

Police later learned that a digital camera matching the description 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 detail to the school (a so-called school resource officer), the assistant principal, and an administrative intern that he was there to question J. D. B. about the break-ins. Although DiCostanzo asked the school administrators to verify J. D. B.’s date of birth, address, and parent contact information from school records, neither the police officers nor the school administrators contacted J. D. B.’s grandmother.

The uniformed officer interrupted J. D. B.’s afternoon social 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. Denying any wrongdoing, J. D. B. explained that he had been in the neighborhood where the crimes occurred because he was 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.” App. 99a, 112a.

Eventually, J. D. B. asked whether he would “still be in trouble” if he returned the “stuff.” Ibid. In response, DiCostanzo explained that return of the stolen items would be helpful, but “this thing is going to court” regardless. Id., at 112a; ibid. (“[W]hat’s done is done[;] now you need to help yourself by making it right”); see also id., at 99a. DiCostanzo then warned that he may need to seek a secure 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 before court.” Id., at 112a.

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 under stood, 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 school day, J. D. B. was allowed to leave to catch the bus home.

J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. ___, No. 09-11121 (June 16, 2011) slip op. at 1-4 (footnotes omitted).

Based upon the foregoing, the State of North Carolina brought two juvenile petitions (i.e., criminal charges) against J.D.B. for breaking and entering and for larceny, and, after J.D.B.’s motion to suppress his confession was denied, he essentially pled guilty and then appealed the denial of his motion to suppress. Slip op. at 4. The North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the conviction over J.D.B.’s objection that his confession was obtained in violation of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U. S. 436 (1966). Id., at 5.

Ultimately, however, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction and remanded the case to the state court to determine whether J.D.B. was “in custody” at the time of his interrogation, thereby requiring the reading of Miranda warnings before the questioning could begin. As the Court explained:

Because these measures protect the individual against the coercive nature of custodial interrogation, they are required “‘only where there has been such a restriction on a person’s freedom as to render him “in custody.”’” Stansbury v. California, 511 U. S. 318, 322 (1994) (per curiam) (quoting Oregon v. Mathiason, 429 U. S. 492, 495 (1977) (per curiam)). As we have repeatedly emphasized, whether a suspect is “in custody” is an objective inquiry.

“Two discrete inquiries are essential to the determination: first, what were the circumstances surrounding the interrogation; and second, given those circumstances, would a reasonable person have felt he or she was at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave. Once the scene is set and the players’ lines andactions are reconstructed, the court must apply an objective test to resolve the ultimate inquiry: was there a formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with formal arrest.” Thompson v. Keohane, 516 U. S. 99, 112 (1995) (internal quotation marks, alteration, and footnote omitted).

See also Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U. S. 652, 662–663 (2004); Stansbury, 511 U. S., at 323; Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U. S. 420, 442, and n. 35 (1984). Rather than demarcate a limited set of relevant circumstances, we have required police officers and courts to “examine all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation,” Stansbury, 511 U. S., at 322, including any circumstance that “would have affected how a reasonable person” in the suspect’s position “would perceive his or her freedom to leave,” id., at 325. On the other hand, the “subjective views harbored by either the interrogating officers or the person being questioned” are irrelevant. Id., at 323. The test, in other words, involves no consideration of the “actual mindset” of the particular suspect subjected to police questioning. Alvarado, 541 U. S., at 667; see also California v. Beheler, 463 U. S. 1121, 1125, n. 3 (1983) (per curiam).

Slip op. at 7-8.

Applying these general principles to the case of a J.D.B., a minor, the Supreme Court held in order to determine whether J.D.B. was “in custody,” for purposes of the questioning that took place at his school, the interrogating officers were required to consider his age:

Reviewing the question de novo today, we hold that so long as the child’s age was known to the officer at the time of police questioning, or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, its inclusion in the custody analysis is consistent with the objective nature of that test.

Slip op. at 14.

In other words, when a police officer elects to question a minor and has to determine whether the circumstances are such that the minor is “in custody,” such that Miranda warnings are required – that is, that a reasonable person in the minor’s position would not believe he or she was free to leave – the police officer has take into consideration the minor’s age. Although the Court did not delineate precisely how police officers are to make that determination, the ruling seems to me to make perfect sense. And if it causes police officers to err on the side of giving Miranda warnings before questioning minors … so much the better.

Oh, one more thing about the J.B.D v. North Carolina decision. It was authored by Justice Sonya Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan joined in the majority opinion. So, Pres. Obama’s Supreme Court nominees are 2-and-0 on Miranda so far.

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.

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