Let’s Change How Police Question Young Suspects

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Tamar Birckhead

Tamar Birckhead newWhen I had been practicing in North Carolina’s juvenile courts for about a year, I represented a client charged in the same case as a 13-year-old special-education student named J.D.B. I remember sitting in a large courtroom and watching J.D.B.’s public defender skillfully cross-examine a police investigator.

Weeks earlier, J.D.B. had been pulled out of his social studies class and brought to a school conference room where this same investigator had questioned him for nearly 45 minutes about a string of neighborhood burglaries. Although the assistant principal, an administrative intern and a uniformed officer on detail to the school were also present, no one had contacted J.D.B.’s grandmother, who was his legal guardian, nor was J.D.B. given his Miranda warnings, told he could leave the room or allowed to make a phone call. The boy initially denied any wrongdoing, but after the assistant principal pressured him to “do the right thing” and the police investigator threatened to put him in juvenile detention, he quickly confessed.

At the court hearing, J.D.B.’s lawyer persuasively argued that her young client’s confession should be suppressed (not used against him at trial) because he had been subjected to “custodial” interrogation without being told that he had the right to remain silent and to have an attorney. When she finished her argument, however, the juvenile court judge announced that the boy had no right to Miranda warnings, since a “reasonable person” would have felt he could leave the conference room at any time. Six years later, in 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case of J.D.B. v. North Carolina, it reversed the trial court’s ruling, holding that J.D.B.’s youth and status as a child should have been considered when determining whether he felt free to walk out under such circumstances.

This critically important decision came to mind this summer when I learned of recent cases in which teenage suspects confessed to crimes after being threatened by police officers during interrogation. Several of these cases occurred in Tennessee, such as when 17-year-old Codey Wayne Miller, diagnosed with borderline mental retardation, confessed to choking his mother to death. He did this after an officer threatened him with the death penalty — a legal impossibility given the Supreme Court’s 2005 holding that capital punishment for juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment and, thus, unconstitutional. The judge who ordered Miller’s confession to be suppressed called the interrogation techniques used against the teen “mind boggling” and “absolutely incredible.”

Similarly, 19-year-old Knoxville resident Carlos Campbell confessed to playing a role in a series of drive-by shootings after police investigators warned he would be gang raped in prison on a daily basis if he did not admit his involvement. A judge recently denied Campbell’s motion to suppress the confession, and it’s unclear whether there will be an appeal.

A third Tennessee case involves a 14-year-old with no arrest record, Jonathan Ray, who confessed to setting a house fire that killed his mother. He did this after police told him his Miranda rights were meaningless because his stepfather — who lacked legal custody — had already given them permission to question him. The juvenile court judge suppressed the confession, but the case has not yet been resolved.

Although the J.D.B. case and those from Tennessee raise somewhat different legal issues, they all speak to the need for reform to ensure the rights of young suspects are protected during police questioning. Social science research has shown that children are particularly vulnerable to the coercive techniques described above and are more likely to provide unreliable information when questioned suggestively.

As a result, we must change the culture in which police regularly subject adolescents to such “mind boggling” tactics. Legislatures across the nation can start by joining the 17 states and the District of Columbia that have successfully mandated either audio or video recording of all interrogations, whether of youth or adults. We must automatically provide all minors with counsel upon any police questioning, a reform no state has adopted. Given that most police officers have received fewer than 10 hours of juvenile interview and interrogation training over their entire careers, law enforcement should be trained with the best practices established by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

As the assistant principal urged J.D.B., it’s time to do the right thing.

Thanks to Josh Tepfer, Project Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth and Assistant Clinical Professor at Northwestern University School of Law, for providing the documents and research relied upon in this column.


Tamar R. Birckhead works as associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law. 

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