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Local Miranda case reaches Supreme Court

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

A young man who five years ago was in the seventh grade at Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill is the catalyst for a case argued Wednesday before the U.S. Supreme Court that could have deep implications for juvenile justice.

The young man is identified today only as J.D.B. At issue in J.D.B. v. North Carolina is whether age should be taken into consideration in decisions about whether to read a suspect his Miranda rights.

Authorities said that in the case in question, J.D.B. was not in custody, and they were thus not required to read him his Miranda rights. His defense argued that J.D.B. could not reasonably have been expected to think he could walk away from two uniformed officers, an assistant principal and another adult, and that his rights were violated.

On Sept. 29, 2005, J.D.B. was a seventh-grade special-education student at Smith when he was called out of his social studies class by the school’s resource officer and taken to a conference room, where Chapel Hill Police Investigator Joseph DiCostanzo, Assistant Principal David Lyons and a school intern were waiting. The door was then closed but not locked.

DiCostanzo asked J.D.B. about some nearby break-ins and J.D.B. acknowledged that he had been out in the neighborhood looking for work mowing lawns. He initially denied any wrongdoing.

But when told by Lyons to “do the right thing” and tell the truth, J.D.B. asked whether he would still be in trouble if he returned items he’d taken. DiCostanzo said that “it would be helpful,” but that he might still be put in detention.

J.D.B. then confessed to having entered a home with an accomplice and taken a digital camera and some jewelry.

DiCostanzo then told J.D.B. that he assumed the student understood he didn’t have to speak and was free to go. J.D.B. nodded “yes.”

The interview lasted 30 to 45 minutes. When the school bell rang, J.D.B. was allowed to leave and board his bus. But when he arrived home, DiCostanzo and another officer were waiting. A warrant to enter the home was eventually produced and the stolen items were recovered. J.D.B.’s guardian, his grandmother, had not yet been told what was happening.

Caitlin Fenhagen, with the Orange County public defender’s office, was assigned to the case.

“I was just immediately struck with how the statement in this case was taken from J.D.B.,” Fenhagen said.

“When I came to learn more about him and his circumstances, and the fact that he was 13 and special ed, and all the details about how the interrogation happened, I became more offended, and I didn’t believe the state had sufficient evidence beyond his confession.”

Fenhagen filed to have J.D.B.’s confession suppressed, but Orange County District Court Judge Joe Buckner denied the motion, concluding that the juvenile confessed voluntarily, was not in custody and therefore did not have to be read his Miranda rights. J.D.B. was placed on probation.

The case eventually made its way to the state Supreme Court, where Buckner’s ruling was upheld by a 4-3 vote. It now rests with the U.S. Supreme Court.

A question of custody
The North Carolina juvenile code provides protection beyond Miranda. It states that a juvenile in custody must be advised prior to questioning of the right to have a parent, guardian or custodian present. It also states that if the juvenile is under 14 years of age, no admission resulting from an in-custody interrogation may be admitted into evidence unless it was made in the presence of a parent, guardian, custodian or attorney.

But was J.D.B. in custody?

According to the law, custodial interrogation is “questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.”

“I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that a 13-year-old in school who is confronted by a uniformed officer in class reasonably believes that he doesn’t have to follow that officer where he’s requested to go,” Fenhagen said.

J.D.B. would, in fact, have been subject to discipline had he not gone with the officer.

“I would argue that a reasonable adult wouldn’t necessarily think that they could just get up and walk out,” said Mark Dorosin of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, who filed a brief in support of J.D.B. “But the court opinions put a lot of emphasis on the fact that he wasn’t physically restrained.

“The state’s position was that the kid was never in custody, that no reasonable person would have thought that they were in custody, which is insane. It’s completely illogical.”

The court must consider what is meant by a “reasonable person” and whether “custody” is the same for everyone.

The North Carolina attorney general’s office argues that subjective considerations for the reading of Miranda rights would make law enforcement’s job too difficult – that officers would effectively have to be psychologists in the field.

Fenhagen questions why the interrogation was conducted at the school.

“There’s no doubt that a police station is a highly coercive setting, which is why we have the Miranda warnings,” she said. “But I think a school setting, particularly for a 13-year-old special-ed kid, is an extremely coercive setting too.”

To claim the interrogation was not a custodial setting, “when it clearly was just as coercive an environment for him, without notifying a parent or guardian, under these circumstances, was just wrong to me.”

Dorosin agrees: “The fact that they managed to circumvent that protection, which could have been invoked, by going to the school, is troubling. And I think it’s one the justices should consider troubling too.”

Assistant Appellate Defender Barbara Blackman will have 30 minutes to present her case to the Supreme Court. The court will issue its findings later this year.

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  1. Mark Peters

    This is the best article I have read on this topic. The topic of custody relative to whether a middle schooler, particularly if special needs are involved, perceives that he or she is being detained is the crux of the issue. The articles in other media did not provide sufficient context on this point.