A recent U.S. Supreme Court case has changed the rules on juvenile questioning making it easier for law enforcement to obtain confessions (J.D.B. v. North Carolina, October Term (2010)). Investigating two recent home break-ins, an Investigator with the Chapel Hill Police Department went to a middle school to question a thirteen (13) year old student about his potential involvement. Equipped with the knowledge that one of the reported stolen items from the break-ins was seen in the student’s possession, the Investigator had the juvenile student pulled out of his class room by the uniformed school resource officer and brought to a conference room within the school. Behind closed doors, he was questioned without a reading of his Miranda rights or the opportunity to call and have his parent or guardian present in the conference room. The questioning was led by the Investigator, while the school resource officer, the assistant principal of the middle school and an intern were present. The Investigator’s department manual required that rights are to be given to the juvenile before questioning is to take place. The Investigator chose to proceed without reading the juvenile his rights. During the questioning, the Investigator made the veiled threat that the juvenile was going to be taken into custody pursuant to a secure custody order, unless the juvenile was truthful. At which time, the juvenile admitted his involvement in the break-ins. After the admission, the juvenile was then read his Miranda rights by the Investigator. What is concerning about this case, school is a place where kids should be protected and safe. However, the Investigator used it as a tactical advantage to question the juvenile, knowing that a parent or guardian was likely not to be present.
The issue considered by the Court, was whether the juvenile felt that he was in custody during the initial questioning, before his rights were read to him. The Court uses an “objective approach” in adult cases, applying whether a reasonable person would feel that they were in custody and not free to leave considering the circumstances under which they are questioned. The only deviation from this objective approach are cases involving mental capacity issues of an individual. The law requires that a waiver of rights must be knowingly and intelligently made. The Court used this adult standard in this case regarding the questioning of the juvenile. In using this adult standard, the Court refused to consider the juvenile’s age as a factor in this objective approach. Applying traditional reasoning for custodial situations such as: an armed guard at the door, handcuffs on the individual or questioning taking place behind a locked door, the Court ruled that the juvenile was not in custody and free to leave at any time. Therefore, his rights to have a parent, guardian and attorney present or choose not to talk to the Investigator were not required by law to be given. It is a sad day in our Nation’s history, when a thirteen (13) year old is lawfully subjected to the same interrogation tactics as a full grown adult.