WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether police officers ought to consider a young suspect's age before deciding to tell him or her about the right to remain silent and to have an attorney.
In a case involving a North Carolina juvenile, the justices must decide whether children, by their very nature, are more likely than an adult to feel restrained when being interrogated — and should therefore be more likely to be given a Miranda warning.
The decision could have sweeping implications for young suspects who are interrogated by law enforcement, and for communities trying to protect themselves from crime.
Currently under federal law, a suspect taken into custody must be read his or her Miranda rights by law enforcement. Certain uses of restraint — handcuffs, a prolonged interrogation, certain surroundings — add up to custody.
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Under court law, if a "reasonable person" would feel free to leave, the rights need not be read.
"We're requiring children to be someone they never could be, and that's reasonable adults," said Barbara S. Blackman, of the North Carolina Appellate Defender's office, which brought the case to the Supreme Court.
The case, J.D.B. vs. North Carolina, arises out of a larceny charge in Chapel Hill, N.C. A juvenile police detective went to the youth's school after two neighborhood break-ins, had him pulled out of class and then asked him about the situation.
The boy, then age 13, was questioned in a school conference room with four adults. The door was closed — but not locked. The boy never was read his Miranda rights. He confessed to the break-ins, and was later charged.
J.D.B.'s attorneys tried to have the confession suppressed, but Orange County District Court judge refused. That refusal was upheld by the state's appeals and supreme courts.
In the hour-long argument before the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday, attorneys for J.D.B. and the state took turns presenting their sides to the nine justices. They were interrupted often as justices peppered them with questions.
State Attorney General Roy Cooper, arguing his first high court case, warned that forcing officers to consider a suspect's youth would "turn Miranda upside down" and put too great a burden on law enforcement.
"That's what this case is all about: keeping Miranda simple and effective," Cooper said later.
He pointed out that juveniles already have rights that consider their age once a case reaches court. Then, prosecutors must submit to a process known as the "voluntariness" test, in which a judge decides whether the confession was truly voluntary.
"Age fundamentally changes the 'reasonable person' test," Cooper told the high court. "It makes it complex."
But he was questioned sharply by Justice Stephen Breyer, who suggested another test. If a suspect's age is among the details known to the officer, then the officer should consider youth in deciding whether a suspect is in custody.
Justices Ruth Ginsburg and Elena Kagan also seemed skeptical of arguments that officers don't always know the age of a suspect.
Ginsburg pointed out that in this case, the officer was a juvenile detective visiting a suspect at a middle school. "It's not a mystery," she said.
But other justices urged caution, especially in questioning Blackman, who argued the case on behalf of J.D.B.
Justice Samuel Alito wondered whether an adult trial judge — he suggested one at the age of 60 — would later have to get his mind into the head of a youngster.
"They must have greater imaginative powers than I would have under the circumstances," Alito said.
And Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wondered whether age difference matters.
"Why not say, 'Look, we've got one strict rule,'" Roberts said. "Everyone knows it. You hear it on TV all the time."
The Miranda warning is still the same rule, Blackman responded, but it would have to be read to juveniles who perceive themselves to be in custody. "The focus here is what the police officer must do," she said.
Justice Antonin Scalia later asked why the Miranda warning isn't read with every interrogation. But he answered his own question:
"We want confessions, don't we? And Miranda warnings deter confessions," Scalia said. "We want the bad guys to confess."
Justice Anthony Kennedy, in many ways the court's ideological midpoint, wondered whether, as long as the Miranda warning is read, that would satisfy Blackman's case. She said the Miranda could be changed for a child's comprehension, but even as it is, she said, "children at least have an opportunity to know their rights."
And later, speaking to Cooper, he said that part of the problem with reading children Miranda rights is the way it sounds to a young ear. "You have the right to remain silent — it would terrify the kid," Kennedy said.
The court's decision in the case is expected later this year.
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