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US Supreme Court ruling catches up with Texas in Juvenile law

Posted by attorney Shari Goldsberry

Last month, the Supreme Court of the United States decided J.D.B. v. North Carolina, No. 09-11121, 564 U.S. ___ (2011). J.D.B., a 13-year-old seventh-grade student, was taken from his classroom to a closed-door conference room where he was questioned by two police officers and two school administrators for over half an hour in connection with recent break-ins. Id. Prior to questioning, J.D.B. was not read his Miranda warnings. Id. He was also not given the opportunity to speak to his guardian or informed that he was free to leave. Id. While discussing recent break-ins, the assistant principal pressed J.D.B. to “do the right thing," and an officer told him to “help yourself by making it right." Id. It was not until after J.D.B. confessed that an officer told him he was free to leave. Id.

At trial, J.D.B. argued that his confession was inadmissible because it was a custodial interrogation and Miranda warnings were not given, that the confession was involuntary and that his age should be considered when determining whether or not he was in custody. Id. See also In re J.D.B., 686 S.E.2d 135, 139 (N.C. 2009). The trial court disagreed, admitted the confessions, and found J.D.B. to be delinquent. J.D.B., 564 U.S. ___. The supreme court of North Carolina affirmed the judgment, holding “we decline to extend the test for custody to include consideration of the age and academic standing of an individual subjected to questioning by police." In re J.D.B., 686 S.E.2d 135, 140 (N.C. 2009).

It is well established that Miranda warnings are only required when “there has been such a restriction on a person’s freedom as to render him ‘in custody.’" Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318, 322 (1994). It is also well established that whether or not a person is in custody is an objective determination. See Thompson v. Keohane, 516 U.S. 99 (1995). The question to ask is: would a reasonable person in the suspect’s position think he was free to leave? Stansbury, 511 U.S. at 325.

Upon reviewing J.D.B.s case, the Supreme Court determined that a suspect’s age must be considered in the custody analysis and that courts can account for age without damaging the objectivity of the custody analysis. J.D.B., 564 U.S. at ___. The ruling accepts the realities that make children different from adults, such as greater vulnerability to pressure, less maturity, and poorer ability to make decisions based on good judgment. Id. To determine otherwise would “ignore the very real differences between children and adults—would be to deny children the full scope of the procedural safeguards that Miranda guarantees to adults." Id. The Court remanded the case to the state court to address the issue of whether J.D.B. was in custody during his interrogation, considering the Court’s new requirement to consider his age. Id.

Meanwhile, in Texas this has been established law for at least a decade. Indeed, in In re D.J.C., my client’s juvenile conviction was overturned on the grounds that he was subjected to custodial interrogation without first receiving the proper warnings and safeguards. 312 S.W.3d 704 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2009, no pet.). By skillfully emphasizing to the court the coercive circumstances of his interrogation and impressing upon it the juvenile’s young age, the court was convinced the interrogation was custodial even though there was no formal arrest. Id.

My client’s success stood on the shoulders of over ten years of precedent in Texas requiring courts to consider the age of juveniles when making a custody determination. In In re L.M., the Court of Appeals at Austin noted that other Texas courts had implicitly considered the respondent’s age when making a custody determination and analyzed cases from other states that explicitly determined this consideration was required. 993 S.W.2d 276 (Tex. App.—Austin 1999, pet. denied). The Austin Court agreed with the reasoning of the out of state courts and embraced the requirements later to be handed down by the Supreme Court, holding “[w]e believe it appropriate for Texas courts to consider the age of the juvenile in determining whether the juvenile was in custody." Id. at 289.

There, the 11-year-old suspect in the investigation of the death of a two-year-old was informed of her right to remain silent, her right to an attorney, and her right to stop the interview, but she was not told that she was free to leave and was not told she could call her guardians. Id. at 290-91. “[L.M.] was isolated and alone during the police interrogation." Id. at 291. The officers further informed her that they had already spoken to everyone in her family and absolved them of wrongdoing in connection with the toddler’s death. Id. They told her “there is nobody left except [her]" and that they were “not going to go away." Id. The Court determined that, based on the circumstances, “a reasonable eleven-year-old who had never before been through the legal system would believe that her freedom of movement had been significantly restrained" and found that she was in custody. Id. at 291.

In the years since In re L.M., Austin’s precedent has been followed by several of its sister courts. See In re D.J.C., 312 S.W.3d 704; Martinez v. State, 131 S.W.3d 22, 32 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2003, no pet.); In the Matter of D.A.R., 73 S.W.3d 505, 510 (Tex. App.—El Paso 2002, no pet.); Martinez v. State, No. 11-09-00274-CR (Tex. App.—Eastland March 3, 2011, pet. filed); Jeffley v. State, 33 S.W.3d 847 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2001, pet. ref’d). Texas has long refused to see juveniles as miniature adults and rather as individuals whose thought process cannot be so separated from their age.

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