COMMENTARY: Look upon a little child

By Jermaine A. Wyrick

The crux of the controversy is how to handle the interrogation of a child as compared to an adult. Specifically, whether the age of a child subjected to police questioning is relevant to the custody analysis of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966) where the United States Supreme Court held police must inform individuals who are in custody of their right to an attorney before interrogation. This derives from the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination in the Constitution that provides that, "no person...shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."

In the recent J.D.B. v. North Carolina 2011 case, the United States Supreme Court, through the majority opinion of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a former prosecutor, promulgated that courts must consider a child's age to determine whether they are in custody and whether a confession can subsequently be used in court. The court reasoned, "that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave." Justice Samuel Alito, a former prosecutor disagreed in his dissent, "Safeguarding the constitutional rights of minors does not require the extreme makeover of Miranda that today's decision may portend." Factually, J.D.B. was a 13-year old, Special Education seventh grade student. He was a suspect in two home break-ins, where various items were stolen. Five days later, a digital camera, matching the description of one of the stolen items was found in his possession while he was at his middle school. Consequently, he was removed from his Social Studies class by a uniformed police officer and questioned for at least half an hour. Prior to the interrogation of J.D.B., the officer did not read Miranda rights, nor give J.D.B. the opportunity to speak to his grandmother - his legal guardian. Initially J.D.B. denied wrongdoing. However, when he learned of the prospect of juvenile detention, he confessed.

In Corley v. United States, 556 U.S._, __ (2009) the court held, "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." In the J.D.B. case, the court stated, "That risk is all the more troubling--and recent studies suggest, all the more acute--when the subject of custodial interrogation is a juvenile." In Stansbury v. California, 511 US. 318 (1994), the court held a child's age, "would have affected how a reasonable person" in the suspect's position "would perceive his or her freedom to leave." In J.D.B. the court stated, " a reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go." Furthermore, "a child's age is far 'more than a chronological fact'....It is a fact that 'generates commonsense conclusions about behavior and perception" In Eddings v. Oklahoma 455 U.S. 104, (1982), the court held, "children 'generally are less mature and responsible than adults, that they often lack the experience, perspective, and judgment to recognize and avoid choices that would be detrimental to them. Bellotti v. Baird, 443 U.S. 622, 635 (1979). Moreover, in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 541 (2005), the court held they, "are more vulnerable or susceptible to ... outside pressures than adults." Hence, "events that 'would leave a man cold and unimpressed can overawe and overwhelm a lad in his early teens." Haley v. Ohio, 332 U.S. 596, 599 (1948). Fortunately, these decisions protect not only the innocence, but the vulnerability of youth.


Jermaine A. Wyrick can be reached at (313) 964-8950 or by e-mail at He is also available for speaking engagements on legal topics.

Published: Fri, Aug 5, 2011


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