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Children's Rights Litigation

J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. ___ (2011)


The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a 5–4 decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina [PDF], which involved answering the question of whether the age of a child subjected to police questioning is relevant to the custody analysis of Miranda v. Arizona.

The majority, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, held that a child’s age properly informs the Miranda custody analysis. The Court majority spoke at length about the vulnerability of children and the fact that children cannot be viewed simply as miniature adults. The Court also dwelled strongly on the fact that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning. The Court referred to “common sense” and “community experience” as factors that make it possible for adults to objectively understand what is expected of children in different situations and indicated that this approach is also warranted when “children are subjected to police questioning.” The Court reversed the North Carolina Supreme Court ruling and remanded the case for proceedings to address the question of whether J.D.B. was in custody when the police interrogated him. Furthermore, the Court directed the state court to take into account all of the relevant circumstances of the interrogation, including J.D.B.’s age at the time.

The dissent opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, addressed a concern that the Court was complicating the Miranda equation by allowing a child’s age to properly inform Miranda’s custody analysis. The dissenters contended that, in the future, the Court will have to decide what other “personal characteristics” might make a suspect susceptible to coercion by police, or else adopt an “arbitrary” line that only age counts, with the concern that even that would result in a highly fact-intensive puzzle for police and judges.

The ABA submitted an amicus brief for this case in support of the petitioner, arguing that, based on the developmental characteristics of juveniles, a court’s Miranda custody analysis for people under the age of 18 must include a determination of whether a reasonable person of the same age would have felt free to terminate questioning.

— Marlene Sallo, web editor, Children’s Rights Litigation Committee

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