The transcript of yesterday's oral argument makes interesting reading as the Supreme Court takes on the question: Should a 13 year old be given Miranda warnings when questioned by Police at School?
Barbara Blackman attorney for the NC minor begins powerfully by stating:
J.D.B. was only 13 years old when he was taken out of his middle school classroom and escorted to a closed door interrogation conducted by outside law enforcement regarding a matter that did not take place on school property. He was isolated from his family who had already demonstrated an interest in this investigation and sought to shield him from the police. He was not advised that he was free to leave or free not to answer questions until he had already incriminated himself. The restrictions on J.D.B.'s freedom of movement which existed because of his youth were heightened by the manner in which this officer chose to conduct this interrogation.
As we all know, criminal suspects are typically given Miranda warnings if they are questioned while in police custody. A person is usually considered to be in custody if a reasonable person in similar circumstances would believe that he was not free to leave. The question presented here is whether courts should consider the age of a juvenile suspect in deciding whether he is in custody for Miranda purposes.
JUSTICE BREYER:... in considering a reasonable person for this purpose and avoiding subjective states of mind, you would look at objective circumstances, known to both the officer and the suspect that are likely relevant to the way a person would understand his situation?
JUSTICE BREYER: So both would be both mental illness and age and -- I don't know, whether you speak English, and a lot of other things would be relevant, provided they are things that are relevant to how a person would understand his situation and are known to both the officer and the individual?
MS. BLACKMAN: Well, we're simply making the point that there's not necessarily going to be a floodgate opening.
JUSTICE BREYER: No, no, but I mean what Justice Scalia was really asking is, do you favor something like this test that I read, which is open as to circumstance? Anything could fit in that blank, as long as both policemen and the -- and the individual know it and it is relevant as to how he understands the circumstance, whether he's likely free to go or not.
MS. BLACKMAN: Conceptually absolutely.
JUSTICE SCALIA: Even -- even if you said no, you're pushing us there, because there's no basis for treating a childhood any differently from these other factors. So basically you're saying Justice Breyer would call it objective circumstances. You know, whether you're mentally deficient, I would call that the subjective condition of the -- of the person being held in custody. And I think, I don't think that's what we meant by the phrase "objective circumstances."But you want objective circumstances to include the character of the person being held in custody, whether he's mentally deficient, whether he's schizophrenic, known to the police, you know, whatever factors, right? Those are all objective circumstances?
MS. BLACKMAN: Your Honor, what we are talking about are a complex of characteristics which are unique to children, and that's what we are examining in this case.
JUSTICE GINSBURG: Ms. Blackman, what is complex about a juvenile investigator? That's what this police officer was. So he's investigating a juvenile for juvenile justice purposes, and I think there's hardly anything more objective than that. This case has child written all over it. It's investigator who deals with children. The first proceedings is going to be a
JUSTICE KAGAN: 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, two are police officers, one is assistant principal, threatened with custody, that that person is not going to feel free to
take off and leave?
And, the attorney general representing North Carolina got similar treatment by the court.
JUSTICE BREYER: There's a big sign jail cell, the door is unlocked. When you want to leave, leave. Is he in custody?
MR. COOPER: Well, Your Honor, I think you have to look at the obvious circumstances.
JUSTICE BREYER: Is he in custody? It's a jail cell, but a big sign, "Go ahead, leave, go when you want." Is he free to leave?
MR. COOPER: I think he may be, Your Honor.
JUSTICE BREYER: Yeah, so do I.
JUSTICE BREYER: Okay. Then why aren't you willing to take into account an ambiguous situation as was true in Alvarado, a tough situation where it's
pretty unclear; he was brought there by his parents and there are all these things around that might suggest to a 20-year-old, yeah, you could leave, but to a 12-year-old, "no." If the judge can take into account whether he's in a wheelchair, whether he just speaks Ukrainian, whether in fact a thing -- you have to swim through a pool and he doesn't know how to swim -- I mean, all kinds of things like that; why can't he take into account in a proper situation before he thinks he's in custody or not, things they both know including
whether he's 8 years old or 22?
MR. COOPER: Your Honor, because those are obvious circumstances that everyone agrees -
JUSTICE BREYER: And it's obvious whether
MR. COOPER: The problem is, Your Honor, you have to think like an 8-year-old or think like a 15-year-old in order to determine the situation.
The final word is still to come.