Supreme Court of the United States
J.D.B. v. North Carolina
Decided June 16, 2011 – 564 U.S. 261
Justice SOTOMAYOR delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case presents the question whether the age of a child subjected to police questioning is relevant to the custody analysis of Miranda v. Arizona. It is beyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave. Seeing no reason for police officers or courts to blind themselves to that commonsense reality, we hold that a child’s age properly informs the Miranda custody analysis.
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 out in the end.”
Eventually, J.D.B. asked whether he would “still be in trouble” if he returned the “stuff.” In response, DiCostanzo explained that return of the stolen items would be helpful, but “this thing is going to court” regardless. 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.”
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 understood, 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 schoolday, J.D.B. was allowed to leave to catch the bus home.
Any police interview of an individual suspected of a crime has “coercive aspects to it.” Only those interrogations that occur while a suspect is in police custody, however, “heighte[n] the risk” that statements obtained are not the product of the suspect’s free choice.
By its very nature, custodial police interrogation entails “inherently compelling pressures.” Even for an adult, the physical and psychological isolation of custodial interrogation can “undermine the individual’s will to resist and … compel him to speak where he would not otherwise do so freely.” Indeed, the pressure of custodial interrogation is so immense that it “can induce a frighteningly high percentage of people to confess to crimes they never committed.” That risk is all the more troubling—and recent studies suggest, all the more acute—when the subject of custodial interrogation is a juvenile.
Recognizing that the inherently coercive nature of custodial interrogation “blurs the line between voluntary and involuntary statements,” this Court in Miranda adopted a set of prophylactic measures designed to safeguard the constitutional guarantee against self-incrimination. 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.”’” As we have repeatedly emphasized, whether a suspect is “in custody” is an objective inquiry.
The benefit of the objective custody analysis is that it is “designed to give clear guidance to the police.”
The State and its amici contend that a child’s age has no place in the custody analysis, no matter how young the child subjected to police questioning. We cannot agree. In some circumstances, a child’s age “would have affected how a reasonable person” in the suspect’s position “would perceive his or her freedom to leave.” That is, a reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go. We think it clear that courts can account for that reality without doing any damage to the objective nature of the custody analysis.
A child’s age is far “more than a chronological fact.” It is a fact that “generates commonsense conclusions about behavior and perception.” Such conclusions apply broadly to children as a class. And, they are self-evident to anyone who was a child once himself, including any police officer or judge.
Time and again, this Court has drawn these commonsense conclusions for itself. We have observed that children “generally are less mature and responsible than adults,” that they “often lack the experience, perspective, and judgment to recognize and avoid choices that could be detrimental to them,” that they “are more vulnerable or susceptible to … outside pressures” than adults, and so on. Addressing the specific context of police interrogation, we have observed that events that “would leave a man cold and unimpressed can overawe and overwhelm a lad in his early teens.” Describing no one child in particular, these observations restate what “any parent knows”—indeed, what any person knows—about children generally.
Our various statements to this effect are far from unique. The law has historically reflected the same assumption that children characteristically lack the capacity to exercise mature judgment and possess only an incomplete ability to understand the world around them. Like this Court’s own generalizations, the legal disqualifications placed on children as a class—e.g., limitations on their ability to alienate property, enter a binding contract enforceable against them, and marry without parental consent—exhibit the settled understanding that the differentiating characteristics of youth are universal.
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. This is not to say that a child’s age will be a determinative, or even a significant, factor in every case. It is, however, a reality that courts cannot simply ignore.
The question remains whether J.D.B. was in custody when police interrogated him. We remand for the state courts to address that question, this time taking account of all of the relevant circumstances of the interrogation, including J.D.B.’s age at the time. The judgment of the North Carolina Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
Justice ALITO, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE, Justice SCALIA, and Justice THOMAS join, dissenting.
The Court’s decision in this case may seem on first consideration to be modest and sensible, but in truth it is neither. It is fundamentally inconsistent with one of the main justifications for the Miranda rule: the perceived need for a clear rule that can be easily applied in all cases. And today’s holding is not needed to protect the constitutional rights of minors who are questioned by the police.
Miranda’s prophylactic regime places a high value on clarity and certainty. Dissatisfied with the highly fact-specific constitutional rule against the admission of involuntary confessions, the Miranda Court set down rigid standards that often require courts to ignore personal characteristics that may be highly relevant to a particular suspect’s actual susceptibility to police pressure. This rigidity, however, has brought with it one of Miranda’s principal strengths—“the ease and clarity of its application” by law enforcement officials and courts. A key contributor to this clarity, at least up until now, has been Miranda’s objective reasonable-person test for determining custody.
Today’s decision shifts the Miranda custody determination from a one-size-fits-all reasonable-person test into an inquiry that must account for at least one individualized characteristic—age—that is thought to correlate with susceptibility to coercive pressures. Age, however, is in no way the only personal characteristic that may correlate with pliability, and in future cases the Court will be forced to choose between two unpalatable alternatives. It may choose to limit today’s decision by arbitrarily distinguishing a suspect’s age from other personal characteristics—such as intelligence, education, occupation, or prior experience with law enforcement—that may also correlate with susceptibility to coercive pressures. Or, if the Court is unwilling to draw these arbitrary lines, it will be forced to effect a fundamental transformation of the Miranda custody test—from a clear, easily applied prophylactic rule into a highly fact-intensive standard resembling the voluntariness test that the Miranda Court found to be unsatisfactory.
For at least three reasons, there is no need to go down this road. First, many minors subjected to police interrogation are near the age of majority, and for these suspects the one-size-fits-all Miranda custody rule may not be a bad fit. Second, many of the difficulties in applying the Miranda custody rule to minors arise because of the unique circumstances present when the police conduct interrogations at school. The Miranda custody rule has always taken into account the setting in which questioning occurs, and accounting for the school setting in such cases will address many of these problems. Third, in cases like the one now before us, where the suspect is especially young, courts applying the constitutional voluntariness standard can take special care to ensure that incriminating statements were not obtained through coercion. Safeguarding the constitutional rights of minors does not require the extreme makeover of Miranda that today’s decision may portend.
Notes, Comments, and Questions
The dissent in J.D.B raised concerns that the majority’s decision will lead to a slippery slope. Should the court consider factors like race, sex, and socioeconomic status in the Miranda analysis? What are potential pros and cons of such an approach?
The next case provides a stark example of the difference between “custody” under Miranda and the definition of a Fourth Amendment “seizure.” The Court has long held that when police stop a car, the driver is “seized” and can later object if the stop was unlawful. See Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653 (1979). In 2007, the Court announced the additional holding that everyone in the car—including passengers—is “seized” during a vehicle stop. See Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249 (2007). The Court explained: “We think that in these circumstances any reasonable passenger would have understood the police officers to be exercising control to the point that no one in the car was free to depart without police permission. A traffic stop necessarily curtails the travel a passenger has chosen just as much as it halts the driver, diverting both from the stream of traffic to the side of the road, and the police activity that normally amounts to intrusion on ‘privacy and personal security’ does not normally (and did not here) distinguish between passenger and driver.”
Nonetheless, the Court held in Berkemer v. McCarty (1984)—in an opinion by Justice Marshall, normally among the Justices most supportive of expanding the scope of the Miranda Rule—that police need not recite Miranda warnings before questioning a driver during a vehicle stop. (The opinion was nearly unanimous. Justice Stevens wrote separately that the Court should not have reached the issue. No Justice disagreed on the merits.)