By Barbara Barrett | McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Thursday against the state of North Carolina in the case of a juvenile who was questioned in a school conference room without being read his Miranda rights.
As a result, law enforcement officials across the United States will have to consider a young suspect's age carefully before deciding whether to inform that person that he or she has the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.
In the case, J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the court concluded that police must consider a suspect's age in determining whether the questioning is "coercive." If a juvenile would find the situation coercive, the officer must therefore read the Miranda rights.
Until Thursday, police were required to decide whether, during questioning, a "reasonable person" would consider himself in custody. If the answer is yes, then law enforcement must read the Miranda rights.
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the "reasonable standard" should take a suspect's age into account.
"A child's age is far more than a chronological fact," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her majority decision.
"Even where a reasonable standard otherwise applies, the common law has reflected the reality that children are not adults," Sotomayor wrote.
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined Sotomayor in her decision.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote in opposition, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Alito said the decision took away from Miranda's clarifying one-size-fits-all rule.
"Safeguarding the constitutional rights of minors does not require the extreme makeover of Miranda that today's decision may portend," he wrote.
Why, Alito wondered, is age different from intelligence? Or cultural background? Or education?
"There is no need to go down this road," he wrote.