Kids waive the darndest constitutional rights: the impact of J.D.B. v. North Carolina on juvenile interrogation.

Author:Kohlman, Abigail Kay


Children are brought up to memorize the number 9-1-1. They are told that the police will help them if they are ever in trouble. Children carry this fundamental advice throughout their childhood, and do not always realize that blind trust in law enforcement can leave them vulnerable to coerced confessions. During police interrogations, compliant children, brought up to respect law enforcement, can forget or be unaware of their interests and therefore waive the right to be silent. More problematic, there is the risk that children will simply state what they think authority figures want to hear, hungry to please these role models who are actually trying to extract information for a conviction. Courts and legislatures must recognize these risks and be mindful that, due to their age and special susceptibilities, children may not have the ability to exercise their privileges against self-incrimination.

In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court detailed the prophylactic measures necessary to protect persons' Fifth Amendment rights. (1) However, since that decision, advocates have worried that the intent behind Miranda is sometimes lost in juvenile cases because the generalized Miranda warnings do not recognize that children are psychologically and socially different from adults. (2) The Supreme Court's recent decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina attempted to address these concerns by determining that a suspect's age impacts whether or not he feels free to leave--the test for Miranda custody. (3) The holding makes it significantly more likely that courts will find not only that a juvenile is in custody because of his youth, but that Miranda warnings were constitutionally required before any police questioning. (4) However, because the Court did not provide for any additional protections during Miranda waiver procedure, where most children are conditioned to forfeit their protections, it is likely that the status quo of children not exercising their Miranda rights will remain.

This Note argues that in order to safeguard juveniles' rights to be free from self-incrimination, the protective nature of parens patriae (5)--a doctrine which gives the State certain responsibilities to intervene and protect vulnerable children-must extend to police interrogations and other pre-trial criminal proceedings. Part I presents the background of Miranda in the context of the juvenile justice system and the Supreme Court's inconsistent acknowledgement that children are cognitively distinct from adults. Part II explains the facts of J.D.B., and the Court's limited holding in that case. Part III demonstrates the impact of police interrogation and how it affects a child's ability to waive Miranda rights voluntarily. Part IV argues that states' current waiver rules do not extend enough protection to children's privilege against self-incrimination. Finally, this Note concludes that the Supreme Court and state legislatures should adopt a two-tiered test for Miranda waiver in conjunction with a custody analysis to guarantee the right against self-incrimination for all juveniles.


    The Fifth Amendment provides the right to be free from self-incrimination. (6) In Miranda, the Court acknowledged the inherently coercive nature of interrogation and the risk that a suspect will feel unable to assert his right to be free from self-incrimination. (7) However, courts have inconsistently treated the significance of age when it comes to recognizing the coercive pressures of interrogation. Section A will introduce Haley v. Ohio, in which the Court considered age a factor in the pre-Miranda "voluntariness" test. (8) Section B will explain the watershed decision of Miranda and the extension of its constitutional protections to juveniles in In re Gault. (9) Section C will chronicle the sudden restriction of juvenile protections in Michael C. v. Fare, (10) and Section D will examine two recent Supreme Court opinions, Alvarado v. Yarborough (11) and Roper v. Simmons, (12) which have discussed distinguishing juveniles from adults and adjusting standards for children in the criminal justice system. And so, Part I will show that the Court, which has recognized that children are different (albeit inconsistently), must now further extend that recognition in the context of the Fifth Amendment.

    1. The Pre-Miranda Voluntariness Regime

      The unease about forced confessions, due to physical distress and psychological pressure, has ancient roots. (13) Before Miranda, the Fifth Amendment required a "voluntariness" test, which examined all of the circumstances of the interrogation and subsequent confession. (14) In particular, this test focused on the conduct of law enforcement and whether it overcame the suspect, preventing him from exercising his rights against self-incrimination. (15)

      Applying that test, the Court recognized in Haley v. Ohio that youths need special protections of counsel and adult support during interrogations. (16) In that case, the suspect was fifteen at the time of his arrest, and was questioned by the police for five hours by different teams of police officers, without counsel or a parent present. (17) Holding that the confession was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court cautioned: "Age 15 is a tender and difficult age for a boy of any race. He cannot be judged by the more exacting standards of maturity.... This is the period of great instability which the crisis of adolescence produces." (18) The Court further reasoned that a boy of this age "needs counsel and support if he is not to become the victim first of fear, then of panic," (19) and dismissed the idea that warnings informing the juvenile of his constitutional rights could have replaced the need to consider the juvenile's age in the voluntariness test. (20) The Haley Court thus gave resounding support for the propositions both that interrogations are innately coercive and that giving mere warnings to children, who cannot fend for themselves, whether due to societal constructs or natural development, is wholly insufficient.

    2. The Birth of the Miranda Analysis and Its Extension to Juveniles

      1. You Have the Right to Miranda Warnings

        The watershed case of Miranda v. Arizona established prophylactic measures to protect the constitutional guarantee against self-incrimination in all custodial interrogation settings. (21) The Court demanded that all law enforcement questioning must be preceded by a two-step inquiry into whether the person was (1) in custody and (2) subjected to interrogation. (22) If both of the threshold requirements are met, the police must warn the suspect, prior to any questioning, that (1) he has a fight to remain silent, (2) any statement he makes may be used as evidence against him, and (3) he has a fight to the presence of an attorney prior to any questioning--if he cannot afford one, one will be appointed for him. (23) The suspect may waive his rights; however, the government has the burden of proving this waiver was made voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently. (24)

        This concept of waiver "created a significant loophole" because "it assumed that the simple act of having the interrogator read the warnings to the suspect could offset the coercive atmosphere." (25) Law enforcement personnel realized "that once they obtain a waiver, they have great latitude in conducting an interrogation." (26) The practical implication is that "[a]lthough Miranda warnings may seem adequate from the detached perspective of a trial or appellate courtroom, in the harsh reality of a police interrogation room they are woefully ineffective"; (27) suspects are terrified, alone, and surrounded by indicia of authority.

      2. Children Have Rights, Too

        When Miranda was decided, it was not assumed that constitutional criminal procedures applied to juveniles. (28) In re Gault changed this, (29) carrying forward the struggle of applying constitutional rights in the criminal justice system. In that case, fifteen-year-old Gerald Gault was prosecuted for making prank phone calls. (30) Gault's parents were not notified of the charges, he was not provided counsel, and he was sentenced to six years in a state facility. (31) In its holding, the Supreme Court extended the privilege to be free from self-incrimination to juvenile suspects. (32) The Court noted that when a juvenile's attorney is not present, "the greatest care must be taken to assure that the admission was voluntary, in the sense not only that it was not coerced or suggested, but also that it was not the product of ignorance of rights or of adolescent fantasy, fright or despair." (33) The opinion intertwined the concerns of both protecting self-incrimination rights in Miranda and the vulnerability of children to police coercion in Haley. In the search of how to best protect juveniles in the criminal justice system, In re Gault determined that children are differently situated but still in need of the same procedural protections given to adults. (34)

    3. The Advent of the Totality of the Circumstances Test Has Left Juveniles Unprotected by Miranda

      The countervailing importance accorded to how juveniles should be protected and how easily courts and law enforcement can administer the rules has been a concern since before Miranda. Not surprisingly, this deep-seeded tension has precluded the Court from adopting any single consistent approach to the Fifth Amendment, particularly in cases regarding juveniles. The dissents in both Miranda and In re Gault critiqued the Court as being overprotective of juveniles to the point of hindering law enforcement because of the greater obligations prior to interrogations. (35) As will be shown, these views began to prevail in the Court's opinions.

      In Fare v. Michael C., a sixteen-year-old suspect was taken into custody during a murder investigation. (36) During the interrogation, the suspect, Michael C., requested...

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