By Hampton Dellinger

CH Case Before US Supreme Court Raises Tough Questions

By Hampton Dellinger Posted May 10, 2011 at 11:43 pm

If you are the parent of a 13 year old suspected by the police of criminal activity, would you expect to be notified before your child is questioned? And, before the interview takes place, would you want your teenager to know that he or she could chose between answering questions or remaining silent?

These questions are raised by a case — known as J.D.B. v. North Carolina — that started in Orange County District Court and is now being considered by the United States Supreme Court. Here is how a leading blog covering the Supreme Court frames the legal issue: “Criminal suspects are entitled to Miranda warnings if they are questioned while in police custody. A person generally is considered to be ‘in custody’ if a reasonable person in the same circumstances would believe that he was not free to leave. The question is whether courts should consider the age of a juvenile suspect in deciding whether he is in custody for Miranda purposes.” (from http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/j-d-b-v-north-carolina/).

Since Miranda warnings were not given to the Chapel Hill teenager before he was questioned, and his parents were not contacted, his lawyer argues that the teen’s confession should be thrown out and excluded from the case against him (i.e. suppressed).

I attended the oral argument that took place in March before the nine US Supreme Court justices. The Court’s ruling could come any day. I’m torn. I’ve worked for years with law enforcement officials and understand well how difficult it can be to investigate crimes and protect the public. In an emergency situation or in a less formal setting than a school where teens clearly understand they are not “in custody”, the arguments in favor of allowing questioning of juveniles to take place without parental notification and Miranda rights are strong. But in J.D.B.’s case the crime, while serious, involved stolen property not violence. And the interrogation took place at school, a place where teens are compelled to be and where I would think most students feel like they have little choice but to answer every question posed by a school official or police officer.

While we all await the Supreme Court’s decision, let me know your point of view. If J.D.B. was your child, would you have wanted to be contacted before he was questioned? And do you think juveniles should be treated differently from adults when it comes to deciding whether they deserve to know what their legal rights are?

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