WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Thursday against the state of North Carolina in the case of a juvenile who was questioned in a school conference room without being read his Miranda rights.
As a result, law enforcement officials across the United States will have to consider a young suspect's age carefully before deciding whether to inform that person that he or she has the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.
In the case, J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the court concluded that police must consider a suspect's age in determining whether the questioning is "coercive." If a juvenile would find the situation coercive, the officer must therefore read the Miranda rights.
Until Thursday, police were required to decide whether, during questioning, a "reasonable person" would consider himself in custody. If the answer is yes, then law enforcement must read the Miranda rights.
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the "reasonable standard" should take a suspect's age into account.
"A child's age is far more than a chronological fact," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her majority decision.
"Even where a reasonable standard otherwise applies, the common law has reflected the reality that children are not adults," Sotomayor wrote.
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined Sotomayor in her decision.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote in opposition, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Alito said the decision took away from Miranda's clarifying one-size-fits-all rule.
"Safeguarding the constitutional rights of minors does not require the extreme makeover of Miranda that today's decision may portend," he wrote.
Why, Alito wondered, is age different from intelligence? Or cultural background? Or education?
"There is no need to go down this road," he wrote.
Juvenile justice advocates were elated.
"Obviously, I think the ruling is terrific," said Marsha Levick, the deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. "I think Justice Sotomayor's opinion really underscores yet again the simple fact that kids are different and that their legal status must take into account their age."
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who argued the case in March, issued a brief statement.
"Law enforcement needed a definite answer on whether they must consider age for Miranda purposes, and now we know they do," Cooper said in the statement. "Officers need clear standards when questioning witnesses, and it will be important for future courts to keep this ruling narrow."
The impact of the decision on the number of confessions or improper arrests among juvenile suspects remains to be seen. But law enforcement officers are likely to revise their ways, said John Charles Thomas, a lawyer at Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Va., who drafted a friend-of-the-court brief for North Carolina on behalf of the National District Attorneys Association.
"It would make sense that with this decision you would think what would happen is there would be more Miranda warnings," Thomas said.
The Miranda rights exist to prevent police from coercing confessions.
"That's a good thing, but it wasn't meant to say people shouldn't talk to police," Thomas said. "Miranda is a barrier of a kind. I mean, it makes people stop talking."
The case stems from a situation in September 2005 in which 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 Miranda rights, which include the right to an attorney.
His attorneys tried to have his statements suppressed, but that was denied through the court and on appeal.
The Supreme Court didn't issue a decision Thursday about whether J.D.B. was in custody and therefore should have been read his Miranda rights.
Instead, the high court remanded the case to the North Carolina courts.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington