Kids Have the Right to Remain Silent, Supreme Court Rules

Filed under: In The News

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You have the right to remain silent.

Sort of.

You have to actually be in police custody -- unable to leave -- before all your constitutional rights kick in.

Would a scared child understand that? Or would he sing like a canary because a grown-up with a badge and a gun asked him a question?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week police need to remember they're dealing with children who might not understand the complexities of the law. True, you don't have to tell a suspect he has the right to remain silent until after he is in custody. But cops should not use that fine point of law to get kids to incriminate themselves.

The court's conservatives disagree.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. writes that the court went too far in expanding the rights of juvenile suspects.

"Safeguarding the constitutional rights of minors does not require the extreme makeover of Miranda that today's decision may portend," he writes.

Alito was referring to Miranda v. Arizona, the landmark 1966 Supreme Court case that resulted in the requirement that police inform suspects of their constitutional rights.

The Washington Post reports this latest case involved a 13-year-old middle schooler in Chapel Hill, N.C., who confessed to burglaries while being questioned by a police officer at school. The boy was not read his Miranda rights because he was not technically in custody. He could still come and go as he pleased.

However, he was a kid. He might not have gotten to that chapter in civics class or watched enough episodes of "Law & Order."

All he knew was there was a cop in the room threatening him with a ticket to juvie. Only after he confessed his part in two home break-ins, did the officer tell him he could refuse to answer more questions and was free to leave.

"It is beyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave," Justice Sonia Sotomayor writes for the majority in the 5-4 decision. She adds there is no reason "for police officers or courts to blind themselves to that commonsense reality."

The decision split the court along liberal/conservative lines.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, siding with the majority, has written some of the court's most notable recent rulings about juvenile criminal offenders. In recent years, the court has moved away from the perception of children as miniature adults. Kennedy has expressed that philosophy in opinions arguing that children should be executed or give life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Conservatives on the court -- including Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- dinged the majority for providing "not a word of actual guidance" for cops on the street.

Police have to make hard decisions in the heat of the moment, Alito writes in his dissent. They need specific rules for how to handle juvenile suspects rather than vague directions about using common sense and taking into account suspects' ages.

It's nice when a suspect spills the beans before being taken into custody and read his rights.

"The pressure of the decision for police will be that if someone is looking young to you, give the Miranda warning," John Charles Thomas, a former Virginia Supreme Court justice, tells the Washington Post. "We don't know what effect that will have."

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.