The U.S. Supreme Court decided last week that a child's age may be considered when determining the adequacy of Miranda warnings. Law enforcement officers are required to recite the Miranda warnings prior to interrogation of a suspect. That suspect must be in custody and must believe he or she is the subject of an interrogation. To determine whether a person is in custody, the Court looks to whether a reasonable suspect would believe they were free to leave at any point before and during questioning.
J.D.B. is a 13-year-old boy who was interrogated by police at his middle school when he was suspected of theft. He admitted to stealing, but later argued that his confession could not be used because the police did not recite his Miranda rights to him. Specifically, he argued that because of his age, he did not reasonably believe he was free to leave during the interrogation.
The Court, in a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Sotomayor, agreed with J.D.B. and held that age can be used as a factor for determining whether a child is in custody. The reasoning is mainly because of the obvious psychological differences between children and adults and the increased vulnerability of children. Most children are more easily intimidated by authority figures than adults, and would be more likely to feel they could not leave an interrogation until they were told to do so. Their inability to withstand coercion requires officers to use their "common sense" when deciding whether to recite the warnings.
The Court also held, however, that age may not always be relevant. It will be relevant when the child is obviously of a young age, or when the police officer knows the child is a minor.
The dissenting justices fear that this new test marks the continuation of the erosion of Miranda warnings. They believe this ruling will be hard for police to follow and fear that they will soon be required to examine other types of personal characteristics of a suspect before interrogating them.