Local News

Rights of child suspects debated at high court

Posted March 23, 2011

— A little-known Chapel Hill break-in was the stimulus for a challenge heard Wednesday before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In 2005, Chapel Hill police questioned a seventh grader on school grounds about break-ins that occurred off campus.

According to case documents, officers pulled the 13-year-old, identified only as J.D.B., out of class at Smith Middle School and took him to a school conference room. After several minutes of questioning during which officers urged the boy "to do the right thing," the young suspect confessed.

The boy's parents were not notified and officers did not initially tell him that he was not in custody and was free to leave at any time. If he had been taken into custody, officers would have been obligated to advise him of his Miranda Rights.

The boy’s lawyer says his treatment was unconstitutional and has argued the case all the way to the nation’s highest court.

The case has gone through several rounds of appeals because some attorneys have advocated that the way police handle Miranda Rights should be adapted when the suspect is a minor.

"Children are categorically different and don't handle stress the same way," said Hannah Demeritt, an appellate defender and law professor at Duke University. "They don't have the same cognitive ability as an adult."

Attorney General Roy Cooper argued that Miranda Rights, which inform suspects of their constitutional rights including the right to remain silent, should be applied the same in all criminal cases, even when the suspect is a minor.

cooper Roy Cooper argues Miranda for minors case at Supreme Court

Marsha Levick, co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, Pa., said children may be more likely to make false confessions.

"We don't want kids to be giving statements that are not appropriate, that are not true because they feel coerced by the nature of the environment," Levick said.

Cooper, in his first appearance at the Supreme Court, argued that changing the rules for questioning young subjects would place an undue burden on officers.

"The key here is we don't want officers to have to get into the mind of a juvenile to determine whether actions they do would constitute custody," Cooper said. "You don't want to turn Miranda upside down."

Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan pressed Cooper on why it's a burden to take extra care when dealing with children, but Justices Antonin Scalia and John Roberts grilled Barbara Blackman, the appellate defender for J.D.B. v. the state of North Carolina, on how officers should reasonably adjust their questioning to suit the individual ages of child suspects. A nine-year-old is different from a 13-year-old and a 13-year-old is different from a 17-year-old, they said.

Hampton Dellinger, a Triangle attorney and member of the Supreme Court Bar Association, said there wasn't a clear winner after Wednesday's arguments.

"The U.S. Supreme Court reminded me a lot of the Wake County School Board. There's a lot of disagreement," Dellinger said. "The stakes are really high and I think the outcome is unsettled."

State courts had previously sided with officers, ruling that the boy was not in custody when he was questioned and therefore did not need to be advised of his rights. In a 4-3 ruling in 2009, the state Supreme Court upheld previous rulings, but in a dissenting opinion, Justice Edward Brady said the investigation was unfair and that the teen was carefully targeted to make a confession.

The 13-year-old at the center of the case is now an adult and attorneys said he did not attend the Supreme Court arguments and has not closely followed the case.

It could be months before the Supreme Court issues a ruling based on Wednesday's arguments.


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  • lakeyk1 Mar 25, 2011

    The word law is attached to the word crime. Crime doesn't have an age requirement nor limit. THE LAW SHOULD BE THE LAW AS WRITTEN. The boy at the time was 13 and questioned for several min. at the school in the school Conference Room. Forget that he is a child, the law is if he had been taken in for questioning he would and should be read his Miranda Rights at that point and time. The school should have notified the parents because of school policy, but if they had gotten involved there would be a big scene of mass confussion of which nothing can be settled. If first time offenders are put into the position of seeing the out come of "crime does not pay" there would be less, if any, repeat offenders. Eventually leading into a safer society and less tax money spent on trials and prisons. "NIP IT IN THE BUD" and let a law stand as it was intended. lakeyk1

  • bonnnie Mar 25, 2011

    My thought is that if he hadnot broke in he wouldnot have been in that situation to begin with, HE IS NOT A VICTIM! and since he wasnt in custody then no rights were violated.

  • genralwayne Mar 24, 2011

    "That pretty much misses the point. Rules for searches and interrogations are designed to protect the innocent when the police do get it wrong."

    Nope, that pretty much IS my point. The detective followed the rules, got it right and did his job. I agree that protecting the innocent is job #1. But, when those same rules protect the GUILTY more often than and at the expense of the current and future innocent victims ... where do we draw that line, people?

    It's like talking to a bag of bricks.

  • abylelab -BT- Mar 24, 2011

    Actually, the fact that he was involved in the crime is even more reason to do things the right way. Coercing a mentally challenged child into confession is not the right way.

  • bill0 Mar 24, 2011

    "Has everyone overlooked the fact that this kid was, in fact, involved in the crime he was being interviewed for? "

    That pretty much misses the point. Rules for searches and interrogations are designed to protect the innocent when the police do get it wrong. Just because they got it right this time doesn't mean they always do.

    Obviously, there need to be different rules for children, it is just a matter of where to draw the line. You wouldn't want officers grilling a 3 year old. The clearest way to draw that line is to say that parents should be present to protect the best interests of their child.

  • genralwayne Mar 24, 2011

    "How is protecting people's rights an undue burden?"

    Has everyone overlooked the fact that this kid was, in fact, involved in the crime he was being interviewed for? The detective did his homework, had what he needed and wanted to get the property back to its rightful owner. To do this, he needed a warrant. To get the warrant he needed reasonable justification; like an admission of guilt.

    How much more protection do you bleeding hearts want to give to those who treat your person and property as their personal ATM or WalMart? With 22 years behind a badge, I will freely admit that cops aren't perfect and I certainly never want to see a Police State form here - but we are the last legit line of defense between you, your community and those who would happily turn you into a victim. Stop tieing our hands with ridiculous restrictions.

    This detective did nothing unethical or unlawful.

  • Lead by Example Mar 24, 2011

    The only real issue here is whether or not the juvenile was in custody. I hope that whatever the ruling it is based solely on that.

  • nything25 Mar 24, 2011

    It's a very simple matter. The school officials were the de facto guardians over the child and in their estimation, it was more important to assist the police in their inquiry than to protect the right to representation of a special education teenager in their care. It was the responsibility of the school to notify the child's parents/guardians and not consent to the interview without them being present. It is the responsibility of the LEO to recognize that cornering a child in a room with all adults and his parents absent is the same as taking a child off the street and interrogating him in the back of your patrol car. It is coersion for any child in that situation.

    Let's not go down the path of the ends justify the means. If this was a murder-case or the cops had enough evidence that they categorically knew the kid did it, they could have gotten warrants and done it by the book. This was coercive and under-handed by public officials who should know better.

  • abylelab -BT- Mar 24, 2011

    From the article: "Cooper, in his first appearance at the Supreme Court, argued that changing the rules for questioning young subjects would place an undue burden on officers."

    How is protecting people's rights an undue burden?

  • abylelab -BT- Mar 24, 2011

    If the child was indeed mentally challenged, then that just makes the police actions even worse.