J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (Jun. 16, 2011)

In this North Carolina case, the Court held, in a five-to-four decision, that the age of a child subjected to police questioning is relevant to the Miranda custody analysis. J.D.B. was a 13-year-old, seventh-grade middle school student when he was removed from his classroom by a uniformed police officer, brought to a conference room, and questioned by police. This was the second time that police questioned J.D.B. in a week. Five days earlier, two home break-ins occurred, and items were stolen. Police stopped and questioned J.D.B. after he was seen behind a residence in the neighborhood where the crimes occurred. That same day, police spoke to J.D.B.’s grandmother—his legal guardian—and his aunt. Police later learned that a digital camera matching the description of one of the stolen items had been found at J.D.B.’s school and in his possession. Investigator DiCostanzo went to the school to question J.D.B. A uniformed school resource officer removed J.D.B. from his classroom and escorted him to a conference room, where J.D.B. was met by DiCostanzo, the assistant principal, and an administrative intern. The door to the conference room was closed. With the two police officers and the two administrators present, J.D.B. was questioned for 30-45 minutes. Before the questioning began, J.D.B. was given neither Miranda warnings nor the opportunity to speak to his grandmother. Nor was he informed that he was free to leave. J.D.B. eventually confessed to the break-ins. Juvenile petitions were filed against J.D.B. and at trial, J.D.B.’s lawyer moved to suppress his statements, arguing that J.D.B. had been subjected to a custodial police interrogation without Miranda warnings. The trial court denied the motion and J.D.B. was adjudicated delinquent. The N.C. Court of Appeals affirmed. The N.C. Supreme Court held that J.D.B. was not in custody, declining to extend the test for custody to include consideration of the age of the individual questioned. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Miranda custody analysis includes consideration of a juvenile suspect’s age and concluding, in part: “[A] reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go. We think it clear that courts can account for that reality without doing any damage to the objective nature of the custody analysis.” Slip Op. at 8. The Court distinguished a child’s age “from other personal characteristics that, even when known to police, have no objectively discernible relationship to a reasonable person’s understanding of his freedom of action.” Slip Op. at 11. It held: “[S]o long as the child’s age was known to the officer at the time of police questioning, or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, its inclusion in the custody analysis is consistent with the objective nature of that test.” Slip Op. at 14. However, the Court cautioned: “This is not to say that a child’s age will be a determinative, or even a significant, factor in every case.” Id. The Court remanded for the North Carolina courts to determine whether J.D.B. was in custody when the police interrogated him, “this time taking account of all of the relevant circumstances of the interrogation, including J.D.B.’s age.” Slip Op. at 18.