Judicial Notebook

Criminal suspects have the right to remain silent and other rights when taken into police custody. A suspect is in “custody” when a reasonable person in that situation would not feel free to terminate police questioning or to leave — a situation with characteristics similar to a formal arrest. Courts have previously used questioning at the police station, behind a locked door or in handcuffs as indicating custody exists. In J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court will decide whether age should be considered in determining custody.

J.D.B., age 13, was suspected of larceny. The police went to his middle school, removed him from class and escorted him to another room in the school. Two school officials and two police officers questioned him behind a closed door. No one read him the Miranda warnings or gave him the opportunity to talk to his parents. During questioning, he confessed to stealing several items, which provided evidence used against him in a subsequent delinquency proceeding. He was not told that he did not have to answer questions or that he could leave until after he confessed. If J.D.B. was in custody, the police would have been required to read him Miranda warnings, including that he was entitled to have a parent present during the questioning. Without those warnings, his confession could not be used against him.

To determine if J.D.B. and other juveniles in this situation are in custody, courts must look at the totality of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, including the school environment. Relevant information may include that school is a place where children are normally not free to do as they wish, such as leave a room or refuse to answer questions, and that children do not normally have access to their parents. Students must also comply with the school’s authority figures, including the assistant principal, who was one of the school officials present during J.D.B.’s questioning. The lower courts determined that J.D.B. was not in custody. They reasoned that the school environment did not make the situation custodial because the lack of freedom and compliance with authority applies to all children while in school, not just to a child being questioned by police. They did not take his age into account in this determination.

The broader issue in this case and in others similar to it is determining what factors result in juveniles’ perceiving an interrogation as custodial. Were the circumstances in this case tantamount to a formal arrest for a person like J.D.B.? To better understand whether this interrogation was custodial, the psychological factors affecting J.D.B. during that interrogation should be investigated with empirical research. There is much research on what makes a confession unreliable, including the use of various coercive interrogation techniques. However, there is little research on how a reasonable adult might view his freedom to leave or stop questioning in the wide variety of situations in which police questioning could occur, and we know even less about how those perceptions might be different for juveniles. However, research demonstrates that juveniles are different from adults during interrogations in a number of other important ways. Children under 14 are less able to understand and make decisions about interrogations. Juveniles have less comprehension of Miranda warnings, increased suggestibility in an interrogation and are more likely to confess than adults. This may be partly because younger juveniles engage in present-oriented thinking, are more likely to conform to authority, lack experience and have a greater vulnerability to stress. Together, these characteristics may mean that younger juveniles are unable to consider the consequences of confessing. These same factors may also contribute to juveniles’ being more likely to perceive as custodial a wider variety of situations.

Research examining the effect of these factors on juveniles’ perceptions in an interrogation would help courts determine when reasonable juveniles believe they are not free to leave an interrogation or refuse to answer questions by the police. This research could include whether the school environment constitutes custody and whether age may contribute to the perception of custody in school or in any other environment. Research on these topics could be essential to protecting juveniles in interrogations, since being in custody triggers Miranda rights and other safeguards.

“Judicial Notebook” is a project of APA Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).