J.D.B. v. North Carolina


Does the age of an individual questioned by police affect whether that individual is in custody and must receive Miranda warnings?

Oral argument: 
March 23, 2011

Petitioner J.D.B. was a thirteen-year-old boy suspected of being involved in two break-ins. The police questioned him while he was at school without giving him a Miranda warning, and J.D.B. made incriminating statements. At his trial, J.D.B. moved to suppress those statements, arguing that he had been subjected to custodial interrogation under Miranda v. Arizona. Specifically, J.D.B. argued that a court should take account of his age when determining whether he was in custody. The North Carolina trial court and appellate courts all held that J.D.B. was not in custody for purposes of Miranda and allowed the statements into evidence. J.D.B. was convicted, placed on 12 months’ probation, and ordered to pay restitution. J.D.B. appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that age should be a factor in determining whether he was in custody for Miranda purposes. North Carolina contends that age is a subjective factor and should not be part of the objective custody inquiry. This case will determine what personal characteristics should be considered when determining whether a subject is in custody, and, therefore, whether a Miranda warning is necessary prior to questioning.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether a court may consider a juvenile's age in a Miranda custody analysis in evaluating the totality of the circumstances and determining whether a reasonable person in the juvenile's position would have felt he or she was not free to terminate police questioning and leave?


On September 24, 2005, police spotted and interviewed Petitioner J.D.B. in the vicinity of two break-ins in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. One stolen item was a digital camera. Police learned that J.D.B., a thirteen-year-old special education student, gave the stolen digital camera to one of his classmates. At the request of the police, school officials brought J.D.B. to a conference room with the school resource officer, the assistant principal, an intern, and a police officer (Officer Dicostanzo), and shut the door. J.D.B. agreed to answer questions, and explained that he was only in the vicinity of the crime seeking small jobs. Dicostanzo told J.D.B. he had recovered the digital camera, and the assistant principal told J.D.B. to “do the right thing.” Dicostanzo also told J.D.B. “it would help” if J.D.B. returned the items.

During the questioning, Dicostanzo told J.D.B. that he was not under arrest, could leave at any time, and could remain silent. J.D.B. indicated that he understood these rights. J.D.B. then described orally and in writing how he and a friend had broken into two houses and stolen property. After interviewing him for 30 to 45 minutes, Dicostanzo told J.D.B. that he would speak with J.D.B.’s grandmother and aunt later, and instructed him to go home.

J.D.B. arrived home to find Dicostanzo and another officer waiting outside and invited them inside to see the stolen property. No adults were at the house and J.D.B. could not give valid consent to a search, so Dicostanzo acquired a search warrant. J.D.B. then gave the officers some stolen jewelry and brought them to a nearby shed where he had hidden more jewelry.

The police neither contacted a parent or guardian nor provided J.D.B. an opportunity to speak with a parent or guardian, either prior to the school interview or while J.D.B. gave police the stolen jewelry. Police neither gave J.D.B. a Miranda warning nor told him that he could speak with a parent or guardian at any point during the process.

Respondent, the State of North Carolina, alleged that J.D.B. was a juvenile delinquent “for breaking and entering and larceny.” J.D.B. moved to suppress the statements and jewelry he gave to Dicostanzo based on the “custodial setting” of the questioning, the fact that he had not received his Miranda warnings, and because he did not have a parent or guardian present.

A Miranda warning, and additional North Carolina protections for juveniles, are only required when the questioned individual is in custody. The trial court determined that J.D.B. was not in custody at the school interview, placed him on 12 months’ probation, and ordered him to pay restitution to the theft victims. The Court of Appeals of North Carolina affirmed. A divided Supreme Court of North Carolina affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether a juvenile’s age is a relevant factor in determining whether the juvenile was in custody and needed a Miranda warning prior to questioning.


In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court held that in order for law enforcement officers to ensure that statements taken during custodial interrogation are admissible at trial, they must first issue Miranda warnings. To determine whether Miranda warnings were necessary, a court must determine whether the suspect was in custody at the time of the interrogation. The Supreme Court has held that the test for whether a suspect is in custody assesses the objective circumstances surrounding the interrogation and asks whether a reasonable person would have felt that he or she was in custody, or felt subject to an arrest, or the equivalent restrictions of an arrest.

Age as Part of the Custody Analysis

J.D.B. argues that a person’s age is an objective factor and it should be considered among the totality of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation. J.D.B. relies on the Supreme Court’s statement that a fourteen-year-old boy did not have the same ability as an adult to safeguard his interests during a police interrogation. J.D.B. argues that the correct question when determining whether a juvenile was in custody is not whether a reasonable person would have felt he or she was in custody, but rather whether a reasonable juvenile would have felt he or she was in custody. J.D.B. maintains that including age in the factors considered is properly part of the objective inquiry. J.D.B. contends that there are obvious and well-documented differences between juveniles and adults, and that, because of this, age represents an objective factor that will be relevant to whether the subject perceives he is in custody.

On the other hand, the State of North Carolina maintains that age is not a relevant factor in determining whether a suspect is in custody. North Carolina contends that the Court has never considered a suspect’s personal characteristics in determining whether that suspect was in custody. North Carolina emphasizes that the important factors to the custody inquiry are objective and do not require significant investigation by law enforcement, contending that a law enforcement officer's perception of the subject is irrelevant to the custody analysis. North Carolina maintains that the effect a person’s age will have on her perception of whether she is in custody is a subjective factor, and should not be taken into account.

J.D.B. also states that the Supreme Court has not addressed the issue of whether age may be taken into account as an objective factor, but argues that lower state and federal courts and state legislatures have addressed the issue. J.D.B. contends that, thus far, those jurisdictions have found that it is indeed appropriate to consider age to be a factor in determining whether a suspect is in custody.

In contrast, North Carolina explains that, although other legislatures have provided more protections for juvenile suspects in custody, these extra protections only apply once it is determined that the suspect is in custody. North Carolina further notes that these additional protections are legislative determinations, not constitutional requirements. Noting that Supreme Court precedent currently factors age into the Miranda voluntariness test, North Carolina argues that age is already properly included in Miranda, and that there is no need to turn the custody test “into something it is not.”

J.D.B. maintains that because age is considered an objective factor in other legal questions, it should also be considered in custody determinations. He asserts that age has been considered as an objective factor by various courts in assessing whether there has been a Fourth Amendment seizure, in determining the viability of a self-defense claim, and in determining whether certain behavior qualifies as reckless disregard for life. Similarly, J.D.B. notes that the age of a suspect is considered as an objective factor in other inquiries, including whether the suspect was being interrogated, whether a suspect had waived his or her rights under Miranda, and whether the suspect had voluntarily provided a statement to the police.

In contrast, North Carolina maintains that there is a fundamental difference between the use of the reasonable person inquiry in questions of custody, and in other civil and criminal inquiries. North Carolina asserts that what makes the custody inquiry different is the fact that it is an “on the spot determination,” whereas other inquiries involve a “deliberative after-the-fact assessment of the person’s actions.” North Carolina warns that allowing age into the custody analysis would permit other characteristics specific to an individual (and therefore subjective factors) to be taken into account.

Policy Goals of Miranda

J.D.B. also argues that considering age as an objective factor will advance Miranda’s policy goals.J.D.B. maintains that the Supreme Court issued the decision in Miranda to ensure that suspects were not precluded from asserting their constitutional right to be free from self-incrimination. J.D.B. maintains that the purpose of Miranda is to prevent the state from placing too much pressure on a suspect undergoing custodial interrogation, effectively precluding him from exercising his constitutional rights. J.D.B. maintains that lower courts requiring age to be added to the custody analysis have not placed an increased burden on law enforcement (even though they must assess whether they need to issue Miranda warnings).

In contrast, North Carolina contends that requiring courts to take account of a suspect’s age will undermine the policy goals of the Miranda decision. North Carolina emphasizes the fact that the Miranda warnings were implemented both to ensure that interrogations were not unduly coercive and to provide law enforcement officers with a way to determine whether a situation amounted to custodial interrogation. North Carolina argues that forcing officers to take account of a suspect’s age in determining whether he or she is in custody blurs the clear guidelines for determining when a suspect is in custody.


The Supreme Court will determine whether law enforcement officers must consider a questioned individual’s age when deciding whether they must provide Miranda warnings.

Petitioner J.D.B. argues that juveniles are particularly vulnerable to police questioning and require special protections from the law. The American Bar Association (“ABA”) concurs, noting that empirical research demonstrates that juveniles are less able to control their impulses and less able to reflect on the possible long-term consequences of their behavior than adults. The ABA also argues that psychological studies indicate that young people are more vulnerable to coercive questioning and generally more compliant with police requests than adults. The Juvenile Law Center (“JLC”) adds that children are especially vulnerable to police pressure in a school setting. Rather than consider requests from police in specific situations, in or out of the school setting, the JLC worries that juveniles might accept police requests based solely on the perceived power of police authority. Therefore, the JLC claims that children such as J.D.B. need extra protection because the coercive pressures of authority, especially in a school, make them less able to freely end an interrogation and more likely to confess against their will.

Respondent North Carolina warns that forcing officers to consider age in a custody analysis will make it more difficult for police to do their jobs. Specifically, North Carolina asserts that, if the Court requires law enforcement officers to consider how the age of a questioned individual subjectively affects the custody analysis, then law enforcement officers will no longer have “concrete guidelines” to help them determine when they must provide Miranda warnings. The National District Attorney’s Association agrees, stating that the goal of the custody inquiry is to “eliminate subjectivity” and ensure that police officers know what they can and cannot do based on a clear, bright-line rule. Thirty-two states and territories caution that requiring police to consider age will open the door to other subjective inquiries, further complicating what should be a clear test enabling police to know when to administer Miranda warnings. The United States warns that cultural background, mental infirmities, and low intelligence could all lead an individual to subjectively view police questioning as coercive when objectively the individual is not in custody.

In support of J.D.B., the ABA and Center for Wrongful Convictions of Youth (“CYCW”) argue that juveniles require Miranda protections because they are more prone to give false or sign incorrect confessions than adults. Both amici point to empirical evidence suggesting that juveniles will often falsely confess without knowledge of the long-term consequences of their actions and without understanding what they are saying. The CYCW asserts that although Miranda warnings alone are insufficient to eliminate all false confessions, they provide a necessary safeguard for children facing the pressures of a police interrogation.

North Carolina contends that considering age as a custody factor will not affect the risk of involuntary confessions. North Carolina argues that only a voluntary confession may be entered into evidence, and that because the voluntariness test considers age, there is no risk of admissible involuntary confessions based on police coercion in the absence of Miranda warnings. The United States further argues that the use of Miranda warnings would not change with an age factor. The United States asserts that police officers currently have sufficient incentive to err on the side of providing a Miranda warning; officers fear that vital information will be excluded at trial, so adding a subjective age consideration will serve little purpose. Thirty-two states claim that requiring police to consider age before giving Miranda warnings will only hamper investigations and suppress confessions obtained by police in objectively non-custodial situations.


The Supreme Court will decide whether police officers must consider age when determining whether an individual is in custody and needs Miranda warnings. J.D.B. contends that age is an objective factor and strongly affects whether a questioned individual feels free to leave an interrogation. North Carolina argues that age is irrelevant to custody and that individuals of the same age can have subjectively different reactions to police interrogation. J.D.B. fears that police will coerce juveniles into providing confessions against their will, while North Carolina asserts that police officers need a bright-line rule to know whether Miranda warnings are required so that motions to suppress do not compromise police confessions and ongoing investigations. The Court’s decision will affect the circumstances in which police officers must inform individuals of their Miranda rights.

Edited by 


Additional Resources 

· Education Week, Mark Walsh: High Court to Weigh Miranda Rights of Juveniles at School (Nov. 1, 2010)

· All Business, Kimberly Atkins: U.S. Supreme Court to Consider Miranda Age Factor (Nov. 1, 2010)