Juveniles and Miranda rights: Two main issues

Miranda warnings are designed for adults. Do they work for children?

Miranda v. Arizona was a landmark case that resulted in the establishment of the Miranda rights. In the case, the police arrested Mr. Miranda and conducted a two hour interrogation. Mr. Miranda signed a written confession and was convicted on kidnapping and rape charges. He appealed the conviction. He contended the police interrogation violated his constitutional rights. The Supreme Court of Arizona affirmed the lower court’s conviction.

He appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). SCOTUS agreed to hear the case and stated the accused must be aware of his constitutional rights when in police custody. These rights include the right to remain silent and the right to legal counsel. The court decided that Miranda was not aware of these rights and reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Arizona.

It has been over fifty years since this decision. The requirement to explain these rights once in police custody remains. However, civil rights proponents argue the current use of the Miranda is not sufficient. The Miranda was designed to ensure adults understand their rights. These civil advocates argue that the warning fails to explain the rights to juveniles.

The Miranda warning poses two main issues for juveniles: when are the rights triggered and what language should be used to describe these rights?

When are the Miranda rights triggered for juveniles?

Miranda rights are generally required whenever an individual is in police custody. For adults, this means the point in time when a reasonable person would believe that he or she is not able to leave custody. But does this mean different things for adults versus children?

SCOTUS provides guidance. The court heard a case that involved a 13 year-old boy. The police accused the boy of burglary. An officer went to the boy’s school, had him taken out of class, put into a conference room and had two administrators present. The police officer asked the boy about his involvement in the crimes, but not given his Miranda warning. The boy confessed.

Ultimately, the court decided that the “relative immaturity and lack of experience” of children must be taken into account when attempting to determine when the child was in custody. As such, police must take a child’s age into consideration when determining the point of custody.

Is the language too confusing?

The court has provided guidance about the custody issue, but not yet about the language of the Miranda. “You have the right to remain silent” is likely the first phrase that comes to mind when talking about Miranda rights. As adults, we know that this phrase means we do not have to answer questions. But do children understand this?

As currently written, it is unlikely a child will understand the full extent of their rights. This belief is supported by the fact that juveniles forgo their constitutional rights at an unusually high rate. A publication in the American Bar Association (ABA) states over 90 percent of juveniles waive these rights.

One way to better understand this point is to look at the Miranda warning as a reading assignment. If given to a student, it would have an eighth grade reading level. This does not take into account the extreme stress an individual experiences when in the custody of police. This is estimated to reduce comprehension by 20 percent.

As such, some states are adjusting the Miranda for juveniles. King County in Washington is one example. The recently approved adjusted Miranda includes statements like “It is OK if you do not want to talk to me.”

Whether or not additional states and counties will follow suit is unknown. Regardless of the language used when in custody, any juvenile accused of a crime should protect their rights. An attorney can help.