©2011 Jack Ryan, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)2011 U.S. Supreme Court J.D.B. v. North Carolina

Law Enforcement Removal of Child from Classroom for Questioning may be Custody for Miranda Purposes

In J.D.B. v. North Carolina, [i] the United States Supreme Court examined an interrogation case involving a juvenile, who was questioned at school for crimes occurring outside of school.  The case impacts interrogation at schools by law enforcement personnel as well as the issue of juveniles and interrogation generally.

The facts surrounding the interrogation were reported by the majority opinion (5/4) as follows:

Petitioner J. D. B. was a 13-year-old, seventh-grade student attending class at Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina when he was removed from his class-room by a uniformed police officer, escorted to a closed-door conference room, and questioned by police for at least half an hour.

This was the second time that police questioned J. D. B.in the span of a week. Five days earlier, two home break-ins occurred, and various items were stolen. Police stopped and questioned J. D. B. after he was seen behind a residence in the neighborhood where the crimes occurred. That same day, police also spoke to J. D. B.’s grand-mother—his legal guardian—as well as his aunt.

Police later learned that a digital camera matching the description of one of the stolen items had been found at J. D. B.’s middle school and seen in J. D. B.’s possession. Investigator DiCostanzo, the juvenile investigator with the local police force who had been assigned to the case, went to the school to question J. D. B. Upon arrival, DiCostanzo informed the uniformed police officer on detail to the school (a so-called school resource officer), the assistant principal, and an administrative intern that he was there to question J. D. B. about the break-ins. Although DiCostanzo asked the school administrators to verify J. D. B.’s date of birth, address, and parent contact information from school records, neither the police officers nor the school administrators contacted J. D. B.’s grandmother.

The uniformed officer interrupted J. D. B.’s afternoon social studies class, removed J. D. B. from the classroom, and escorted him to a school conference room. There, J. D. B. was met by DiCostanzo, the assistant principal, and the administrative intern. The door to the conference room was closed. With the two police officers and the two administrators present, J. D. B. was questioned for the next 30 to 45 minutes. Prior to the commencement of questioning, J. D. B. was given neither Miranda warnings nor the opportunity to speak to his grandmother. Nor was he informed that he was free to leave the room.

Questioning began with small talk—discussion of sports and J. D. B.’s family life. DiCostanzo asked, and J. D. B. agreed, to discuss the events of the prior weekend. Denying any wrongdoing, J. D. B. explained that he had been in the neighborhood where the crimes occurred because he was seeking work mowing lawns. DiCostanzo pressed J. D. B. for additional detail about his efforts to obtain work; asked J. D. B. to explain a prior incident, when one of the victims returned home to find J. D. B. behind her house; and confronted J. D. B. with the stolen camera. The assistant principal urged J. D. B. to “do the right thing,” warning J. D. B. that “the truth always comes out in the end.”

Eventually, J. D. B. asked whether he would “still be in trouble” if he returned the “stuff.”  In response, DiCostanzo explained that return of the stolen items would be helpful, but “this thing is going to court” regardless. “What’s done is done; now you need to help yourself by making it right”.  DiCostanzo then warned that he may need to seek a secure custody order if he believed that J. D. B. would continue to break into other homes. When J. D. B. asked what a secure custody order was, DiCostanzo explained that “it’s where you get sent to juvenile detention before court.”

After learning of the prospect of juvenile detention, J. D. B. confessed that he and a friend were responsible for the break-ins. DiCostanzo only then informed J. D. B. that he could refuse to answer the investigator’s questions and that he was free to leave.  Asked whether he understood, J. D. B. nodded and provided further detail, including information about the location of the stolen items. Eventually J. D. B. wrote a statement, at DiCostanzo’s request. When the bell rang indicating the end of the school day, J. D. B. was allowed to leave to catch the bus home. (cites omitted).

The most significant issue before the Court was whether a child’s age had any bearing on the determination on whether a person was “in-custody” for Miranda purposes and thus whether or not the warnings would be required.  It is noted that custody is generally determined by focusing on whether law enforcement has deprived a person of their liberty in a significant way and to a degree which would be associated with formal arrest.  Thus, the issue presented here changes the focus to a determination as to whether the age of the suspect (juvenile) impacts the suspect’s beliefs with respect to whether they are in custody, in the circumstances they are facing.

The Court began its analysis by recognizing that interrogation by government officials in inherently coercive and that the purpose of Miranda warnings is to overcome this coercion.  It was noted however that the only time warnings would be necessary is if, during such interrogation, the suspect was in custody.  The Court reiterated the analysis for determining custody as follows:

“Two discrete inquiries are essential to the determination: first, what were the circumstances surrounding the interrogation; and second, given those circumstances, would a reasonable person have felt he or she was at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave. Once the scene is set and the players’ lines and actions are reconstructed, the court must apply an objective test to resolve the ultimate inquiry: was there a formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with formal arrest.” (cite omitted).

Thus, the question to be answered was whether law enforcement’s removal of a student from their classroom under these circumstances would have constituted a “formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with formal arrest” and how the age of the student would factor into this analysis.

The State of North Carolina had argued that the custody should be answered by looking to the objective factors surrounding the interrogation and that age should not be considered.  The Majority rejected this argument asserting: “In some circumstances, a child’s age would have affected how a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would perceive his or her freedom to leave… That is, a reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go.” This particular assertion by the Court would apply to any interrogation of a juvenile, thus law enforcement must consider whether the reasonable juvenile would believe they were formally arrested or that there was a restraint on their movement of the degree associated with formal arrest.

In rationalizing the application of age as a factor to be considered by law enforcement in the custody analysis, the Court cited prior decisions recognizing that juveniles lack maturity; experience and judgment as to what is detrimental to them, and; that juveniles are more vulnerable or susceptible to outside pressure than adults.

The majority cited the need to take the fact that a person being interrogated was a juvenile in order to complete an objective analysis.  The Court asserted:

In fact, in many cases involving juvenile suspects, the custody analysis would be nonsensical absent some consideration of the suspect’s age. This case is a prime example. Were the court precluded from taking J. D. B.’s youth into account, it would be forced to evaluate the circumstances present here through the eyes of a reasonable person of average years. In other words, how would a reasonable adult understand his situation, after being removed from a seventh-grade social studies class by a uniformed school resource officer; being encouraged by his assistant principal to “do the right thing”; and being warned by a police investigator of the prospect of juvenile detention and separation from his guardian and primary care-taker? To describe such an inquiry is to demonstrate its absurdity. Neither officers nor courts can reasonably evaluate the effect of objective circumstances that, by their nature, are specific to children without accounting for the age of the child subjected to those circumstances.

The Court held:

Reviewing the question de novo today, we hold that so long as the child’s age was known to the officer at the time of police questioning, or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, its inclusion in the custody analysis is consistent with the objective nature of that test.  This is not to say that a child’s age will be a determinative, or even a significant, factor in every case… Just as police officers are competent to account for other objective circumstances that are a matter of degree such as the length of questioning or the number of officers present, so too are they competent to evaluate the effect of relative age. Indeed, they are competent to do so even though an interrogation room lacks the “reflective atmosphere of a [jury] deliberation room.” The same is true of judges, including those whose childhoods have long since passed.  In short, officers and judges need no imaginative powers, knowledge of developmental psychology, training in cognitive science, or expertise in social and cultural anthropology to account for a child’s age. They simply need the common sense to know that a 7-year-old is not a 13-year-old and neither is an adult.

The Majority concluded: “To hold, as the State requests, that a child’s age is never relevant to whether a suspect has been taken into custody — and thus to 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.”

It is important to note to significant aspects of this decision.  The Court did not decide that J.D.B. was in custody and thus entitled to Miranda warnings.  The Court merely decided that the officers and the lower court have to take into account the fact that J.D.B. was 13 years old when questioned and decide whether a 13 year old in J.D.B.’s position would have believed that he was formally arrested or that he was restrained to a degree that would be associated with formal arrest.  If the trial court were to determine that a 13 year old under these circumstances would not believe they were in custody, no warnings would be required.  If a 13 year old in J.D.B.’s circumstances would believe they were in custody, warning would be required.

The Court also did not say that 13 year olds cannot be questioned.  The only issue was whether or not J.D.B. should have been given Miranda warnings prior to the questioning.  Officers should be aware that once it is determined that warnings should be given to a juvenile before questioning, the next point of attack on any statement obtained will be whether or not the juvenile was capable of waiving their rights under Miranda.  Whether or not there is a proper waiver falls back on another United States Supreme Court case, Fare v. Michael C. [ii] where the Court held that determining the ability of a juvenile to waive there rights under Miranda requires a totality of circumstances approach which includes looking at the particular juvenile’s age, experience, and background, to determine if they were capable of waiving their rights.


  1. All law enforcement must now recognize that in determining whether a juvenile is in-custody for purposes of Miranda, the officer must consider whether a person of the suspect’s age faced with the circumstances the suspect is facing, would believe they were formally arrested or that their freedom of movement was restrained to the degree normally associated with formal arrest.
  2. Any actions by law enforcement to emphasize that the juvenile was made aware that they were not under arrest and/or free to leave should be well documented along with any indication of the juvenile’s understanding of this fact.
  3. Additional factors such as the number of persons present; positioning within room; doors closed or open etc. should also be documented.
  4. If the answer is Yes to the above question, then Miranda warnings must be given before interrogation or the functional equivalent of interrogation.
  5. If Miranda warnings are given to a juvenile, officers should be aware that a court will consider the juvenile’s age, education, and background to determine whether the juvenile was capable of a proper waiver.


NOTE:    Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal advisor regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.


[i] J.D.B. v. North Carolina, ___564 U.S. ___; 2011 U.S. LEXIS 4557; slip opinion No. 09-11121 (June 16, 2011).

[ii] Fare v. Michael C., 442 U.S. 707 (1979).

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