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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When Police Interrogate Children

J.D.B. v. North Carolina

On its surface, a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court may seem to be legally trivial; it’s about a juvenile who stole from neighborhood houses. But J.D.B. v. North Carolina could redefine both the law’s “reasonable person” standard and what it means to be in custody. The case is a bellwether on the status of children’s rights and how far America has slid into a police state.

The case hinges on how far the police can exert their authority over grade-school students with the active cooperation of school officials but without the knowledge or consent of custodial adults. Specifically, are the rights of a school child violated if police interrogate him about criminal activity without a custodian or attorney present and without reading him his Miranda rights?

In recent years police have increasingly exerted authority over grade-school children. In 1998 the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (Part Q, Title I) was amended to create active “collaboration” between police departments or agencies and “school and community-based organizations.” Since then, public schools have increasingly come to resemble prisons, with metal detectors, locker searches, and zero-tolerance policies under which students can be suspended for even speaking of violence.

Police in Grade Schools

School resource officers are commonplace in grade schools, screening children for firearms and drugs, controlling access, and squelching violence. Typically a police department assigns responsibility for each school to a particular officer who works closely with school administrators. A 2004 report published in the Law Enforcement Executive Forum stated that “[o]n any given day, there are more than 3,800 school resource officers (SROs) on duty in the United States.” (PDF download available here.)

Armed officers patrolling grade-school corridors have been justified  in the name of protecting children. If that was a sincere motivation, there seems to have been severe “mission drift,” with children being treated as criminals for nonviolent or even trivial offenses. Although no aggregate statistics exist on how often schools call the police to deal with students throwing temper tantrums or sketching guns in class, media stories now abound about police arresting grade-school children for such offenses.

To date, the rights of criminalized school children and their parents have not been well established. J.D.B. v. North Carolina has the potential of providing some clarity.

Interrogated at School

In 2005 a 13-year-old male identified as J.D.B. was a seventh-grade special-education student at a Chapel Hill, N.C., public school when he was called out of class to be questioned by two uniformed officers in the presence of the assistant principal and another adult. He was interrogated for 30 to 45 minutes in a closed but unlocked room regarding some neighborhood thefts. J.D.B. denied wrongdoing but asked whether returning everything would get him out of trouble. A police officer replied, “It would be helpful,” but added that J.D.B. might still be detained. After being urged to “do the right thing,” J.D.B. admitted guilt. At that point a policeman stated that he “assumed” J.D.B. knew he didn’t have to speak and was free to leave. The child nodded “yes.” When J.D.B. arrived home that afternoon, police officers were waiting. After obtaining a warrant, they searched his home, found stolen items, and arrested him. (See local newspaper story here.)

J.D.B.’s grandmother and guardian was not informed of what was occurring.

In court a public defender argued for suppressing the confession and warrant because J.D.B. had not be “Mirandized.” Moreover, North Carolina’s code requires a juvenile in custody to be advised of the right to have a parent or guardian present before questioning can begin. If the juvenile is under 14, no admission made during interrogation can be used as evidence unless a parent, guardian, or attorney was present.

The prosecutor argued that J.D.B. had never been in custody, only in school, and that no reasonable person would have believed he or she was in custody.

The judge sided with the prosecutor. The “reasonable person” standard was applied despite J.D.B.’s age, his special-education status, the uniformed officers, and the presence of school officials whose requests he would have been punished for defying. (North Carolina defines interrogation in custody as “questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.”)

The Supreme Court will now consider what it means both to be a “reasonable person” and to be “in custody.” Whatever the ruling, it will almost certainly impact the authority police exert over public-school students, perhaps dramatically so.

A decision is not expected until June.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.