Police Questioning of Minors

In the U.S. criminal justice system, minors have the right to have legal counsel present during custodial interrogations. Suppose a minor waives their Miranda rights and speaks to law enforcement without a lawyer present. In that case, the waiver must be voluntary and made with a clear understanding of the consequences.

Everyone knows the iconic phrase, "You have the right to remain silent." It's usually the first thing police tell someone when taking them into custody. This statement is among several rights — known as "Miranda rights" — that people have when in police custody.

Custodial interrogation of minors occurs when officers question individuals under age 18 who are in police custody or otherwise not free to leave.

Police must notify a person of their Miranda rights when taking them into custody and interrogating them. The same is true of the police questioning of minors but with more precautions and requirements for Miranda warnings. If officers don't follow this rule, they risk having a judge throw out any statements or admissions that the minor in custody might make. When a young person gets caught up in a criminal investigation, many legal and procedural processes come into play.

Determining When a Juvenile Is in Custody

Determining the exact point when law enforcement officers have taken someone into custody can be difficult. An arrest means that the person is in police custody. But other situations can amount to custody even without a formal arrest.

To determine whether law enforcement has placed a person in custody, courts examine the facts of a case based on a "reasonable person" standard. If a reasonable person would feel unrestricted in the scenario, the person is not in custody. If a reasonable person could not leave, the police have placed the individual in custody and must notify them of their Miranda rights.

The same rules apply to the situation when police question minors. But the Supreme Court expanded on the rules for minors when it decided that police must take a person's age into account when determining whether the circumstances of a case merit a Miranda notification.

Facts of the Case: J.D.B. v. North Carolina (2011)

In a 2011 Supreme Court case, a 13-year-old boy had been linked to two burglaries. A police officer removed him from class and placed him in a conference room with the door closed. Two school administrators were also present.

The officer didn't give the boy a Miranda warning. Nor did the officer inform the teen that he could leave the room any time before the questioning. After the boy admitted to participating in the burglaries, the officer told the teen that he could refuse to answer questions and leave whenever he wanted. The boy stayed and provided further details about the crimes.

The Court's Ruling

The Supreme Court held that it was improper to deny the request to throw out the boy's statements to the police. The court held this because he didn't receive proper Miranda warnings. The court said kids are not seen as adults because of their relative immaturity and lack of experience.

Since minors' comprehension of their situation differs from that of adults, their understanding of when a questioning occurs during custody will also differ. Minors may exhibit more compliance with authority and need Miranda notifications in situations that wouldn't trigger the Miranda rule for adults.

The Supreme Court didn't decide that the trial court should grant the boy's request but said that it improperly denied the request when it failed to consider the boy's age. The court ordered the trial judge to reconsider the question. The high court ordered that judges on the lower bench use the boy's age and surroundings as factors in the decision.

Results of the Case

The case resulted in requiring more care during the police questioning of minors. Since the Supreme Court has determined that courts must consider a person's age when deciding whether that person was in police custody, police officers will need to use methods that balance an interview subject's age against the other circumstances of the case, such as where the interview takes place and who else is present in the room.

The decision doesn't impose a requirement for a Miranda notification for every police questioning of a minor. But it does suggest that courts will scrutinize police interviews of juveniles more carefully in the future. Courts will consider the totality of the circumstances when determining if a minor's confession was voluntary. Due to minors' vulnerability, they are more susceptible to making false confessions during police interrogation.

Bottom Line: Can a Police Officer Question a Minor Without a Parent or Guardian Present?

Usually, police can question minors without having a parent or guardian present if the minor is under arrest. But many exceptions to this rule prevent police from questioning a minor without a guardian there and, thus, may affect whether the minor's statement is usable in court. Courts will look at:

  • The child's age
  • Their developmental level
  • Their capacity to understand and communicate

In some states or localities, rules say the police must tell a child's parents or guardians if they're in custody. Legal systems also consider what's best for kids and their rights. They want to make sure that the questions are right for their age and that there are special rules for children.

Adjudication and Criminal Records

When officers question a minor, the Fifth Amendment's right against self-incrimination applies. This is especially true in custodial interrogations. This means the minor has the right to remain silent and not speak until they have an attorney present. Like adults, minors have a right to counsel.

Depending on the severity of the offense, the juvenile court system may process a minor's charges in juvenile court, or they may face charges in adult court. The consequences of adjudication in juvenile court vary.

For example, misdemeanors and traffic violations handled within the juvenile justice system focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. But serious offenses can lead to the minor being tried as an adult in criminal court. It is helpful to inform children that they can say no to talking to the police. Tell your kids to ask for their guardian or a juvenile law lawyer to be there. Additionally, if you or another family member are there when the police approach your child, you can refuse to allow the police to interview them.

Questions About Juvenile Delinquency Law? Get Legal Advice Today

Police questioning of minors is a multifaceted process that requires consideration of legal procedure, constitutional rights, and the specifics of your case. A good first step in the process is to speak with a criminal defense attorney who can review the facts of the case and be a legal advocate in your corner.

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