When a police officer says "You have the right to remain silent," the "you" is usually an adult. But what if a child suspected of wrongdoing is interrogated? That question is at the heart of a case argued before the Supreme Court last week. The issues are complex, but the bottom line is clear: Children being questioned in what they experience as a coercive environment must be read their rights.
The case involves a 13-year-old North Carolina boy who was suspected by police in two break-ins. A police department investigator questioned the boy in a school conference room, but he wasn't read his rights — not because he was a juvenile but because no suspect, regardless of age, is entitled to Miranda rights until he's in custody.
By adult standards, the boy wasn't in custody: He wasn't under arrest, the door was unlocked and at one point the police investigator told him he could leave. But common sense suggests that a 13-year-old taken to an office and faced with not only the police but also school officials, as happened in this case, won't feel free to leave or to refuse to answer their questions. And, as often with adults, a coercive environment in this case produced a confession. The boy was then adjudicated delinquent by the juvenile justice system.
The boy's lawyer asked the Supreme Court to rule that the definition of "custody" ought to change depending on the age of the suspect. A judge considering whether to admit a confession by a juvenile would examine the situation in which it was made and whether a reasonable person of the same age would feel confined and therefore pressured to answer questions.
Several justices were skeptical. Justice Antonin Scalia asked if the definition of custody should also be adjusted for the mentally handicapped and whether there should be different standards for children of different ages. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked about situations in which a child's age was unclear. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. questioned whether age is a guide to immaturity. "Some 15-year-olds," he said, "know a lot more than some 17-year-olds."
The court may someday be asked to change the rules for the interrogation of mentally disabled suspects, but it need not reach that issue in this case. As for differences in age and appearance, a clear rule — say, one that covers suspects 15 and under — would resolve most of the ambiguities.
As the American Civil Liberties Union points out in a friend-of-the-court brief, police are an increasing presence in schools, a setting where attendance is mandatory and behavior is closely regulated. For some children accused of wrongdoing, school is like a police station. Miranda warnings should be given in both places when police are questioning children.