WASHINGTON — In September 2005, a 13-year-old boy was pulled out of his class at a Chapel Hill, N.C., middle school, escorted to another room and interrogated behind a closed door by a police detective and three other adults.
The boy confessed to a neighborhood larceny. He never was read his so-called Miranda rights, which include the right to an attorney.
Should he have been?
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will take up a case, J.D.B. vs. North Carolina, that could have sweeping implications for young suspects who are questioned by law enforcement. The question before the court is whether an interrogator should consider a suspect's age before deciding whether to read the Miranda warning.
Right now, police must decide whether a "reasonable person" would consider themselves in custody. If the answer is yes, then law enforcement must tell the suspect they have the right to remain silent, to call an attorney and, if under 18, to have his or her parents notified.
The court's decision is important, observers say, because it affects not only how law enforcement officers do their jobs, but also how juvenile suspects are treated.
"It comes down to the type of society we want to live in," said Tamar Birckhead, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law who has written about the case.
She and other juvenile justice advocates argue that children should be given extra consideration by police officers in the early stages of an investigation, including in interrogations.
But those who advocate for law enforcement agencies say youths already have extra protections in court, and that police officers should not bear an additional burden of trying to figure out a suspect's age.
"It's really just a matter of, how does adding age into the mix muddy the waters for police who are trying to make on-the-spot decisions," said Megan Miller, who wrote an amicus brief for the National District Attorney's Association on behalf of the state of North Carolina.
The case, J.D.B. vs. North Carolina, arises out of a larceny charge in Chapel Hill. A juvenile police detective went to the youth's school after a neighborhood break-in, had him pulled out of class and then asked him about the situation.
Twice, the detective asked J.D.B. whether he'd be willing to answer questions. Twice, the boy nodded yes. The youth confessed after an assistant principal encouraged him to "do the right thing."
The child was allowed to catch his bus that afternoon, but police later came to his home, executed a search warrant, found items taken in the break-in and arrested him.
The issue in Wednesday's Supreme Court case revolves around the word "custody."
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.
If the suspect feels free to leave, the rights need not be read.
In J.D.B. vs. North Carolina, the boy was in a conference room with the door closed, but not locked. He was asked twice whether he was OK answering questions.
J.D.B.'s attorneys tried to have the confession suppressed, but the local court refused. That refusal was upheld by state's appeals and supreme courts.
But J.D.B.'s defense attorneys will argue Wednesday that while an adult might have felt free to walk out, a 13-year-old wouldn't.
"Go through your own head," said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of J.D.B.
"Think about your own kids, in an environment surrounded by four adults. Could you imagine your child saying, 'Can I leave now?'" she asked. "It's almost laughable, honestly."
The respondent argues that's not the case.
In its brief, the North Carolina Attorney General's Office argues that opening the consideration to age isn't fair to law enforcement officers and would require them to consider a range of other possible considerations, such as cultural background, education, mental infirmities or other potential vulnerabilities.
"Miranda works because it sets a clear, bright-line path for police to follow," wrote North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper and his staff.
Miller, who wrote the amicus brief, said juvenile suspects already have protections during court proceedings. Adding age, she said, could lead to situations in which Miranda warnings are offered more than would be required.
And that, she added, would result in fewer voluntary confessions.
As for how the high court will decide, Birckhead said the key vote may rest with Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinions in recent decisions that ended the juvenile death penalty and life in prison for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes.
"He is the wild card here," Birckhead said.
The Supreme Court will issue its decision later this year.
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