Monday, November 1, 2010

Is custody objective or subjective? Supreme Court Grants Review in New Miranda Case

The Supreme Court has granted review in a new Miranda case, J.D.B. v. North Carolina (09-11121). The details are on scotusblog. In this case, the juvenile was a suspect in a burglary investigation. The police came to his school, and he was taken from class to a conference room. An investigator, assistant principal, an assistant principal intern, and the school resource officer were present. The door was closed, but not locked, and the juvenile agreed to answer questions about the crime. He was not provided with Miranda warnings. He confessed, was told that he was free to leave, and then provided a written confession.

The North Carolina court held that the juvenile was not in custody for Miranda purposes, so no warnings were necessary prior to questioning. In reaching this conclusion, the court held that the question about whether someone is in custody depends on whether a reasonable person in the position of the suspect would believe himself to be in custody or that he had been deprived of his freedom. This is, according to the court, an objective inquiry that does not take the age or mental capacity of the suspect into account.

This case is interesting because courts have consistently considered the age and background of defendants in determining whether a Miranda waiver is knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. In Fare v.Michael C., for example, the Supreme Court considered an argument by a juvenile that he had been unable to understand his rights. The Court, in rejecting this argument, noted that the juvenile had "considerable experience with the police" and that he had "a record of several arrests," had served time in a "youth camp," and was on probation. Even in situations where defendants have more limited mental capabilities, prior experience with the criminal justice system can be considered a significant factor in finding that defendants voluntarily waived their Miranda rights. Other courts have relied upon the prior criminal justice system experience of defendants to overcome concerns stemming from below average intelligence.

Accordingly, it appears that the question about waiver is subjective. It will be interesting if the Supreme Court applies the same test going forward to custody.



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