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Reflecting on J.D.B. v. North Carolina, Part 4

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

By: Barbara Fedders, Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina School of Law

10 Years After JDB

Along with Mark Dorosin (then of the UNC School of Law Center for Civil Rights, now with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under the Law) Hannah Demeritt (then of the NC Office of the Juvenile Defender, now a clinical professor at Duke University School of Law) and Legal Aid Advocates for Children’s Services, I helped write an amicus brief in this case to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

All of us worked with youth on racial and educational justice issues, and the inequities in this case were stark. JDB is Black and at the time was a 13 year old seventh grader receiving special education services. His race, age, and unique educational needs all rendered him vulnerable to the “overzealous police practices” condemned by the Court in Miranda v. Arizona. He was alleged to have committed non-violent property crimes off campus. The police had already attempted to interrogate his grandmother and aunt in the community. Apparently unsatisfied, they then went to school – where they could be certain that no parent or guardian would be present – and, in the words of one of the dissents of the North Carolina Supreme Court, “carefully and selectively target[ed]” JDB by orchestrating an in-school interrogation. It is difficult to imagine that had JDB been white and middle class, the officer would have been so cavalier about circumventing a legal guardian’s protections.

The district court judge, perhaps accustomed to seeing Black boys in court, was untroubled by this set of facts and denied the motion to suppress. JDB was adjudicated delinquent. This case occurred in a court and at a time in which trial judges seemed – based on my observations – to focus less on the quantum and quality of the evidence and whether state actors complied with the Constitution and more on whether the children, in their opinion, needed the services available through the Department of Public Safety (then the Department of Juvenile Justice). And Black youths and other youths of color disproportionately were placed in that category.

While JDB is now known for the Supreme Court case that vindicated the principle that age should factor into the analysis of whether a person is in custody for Miranda purposes, it’s important not to lose sight of what happened to JDB, the person. He was pulled out of class by a uniformed officer, in front of his peers. The officer took him to a conference room, shut the door, and, along with the off-campus officer and two officials, interrogated him. They never called his grandmother. (While school-policing proponents often justify the presence of armed officers in school by arguing that they prevent crime and violence in school, the show of police force in this case had nothing at all to do with problems in school.) JDB then had to make multiple court appearances, enduring the humiliating rituals of juvenile court and eventually having to hear himself pronounced a delinquent. Policing, prosecution, court appearances – these processes can be traumatizing and stigma-inducing, even if a child emerges from a delinquency or criminal case without an adjudication or conviction.

As the North Carolina General Assembly decides whether to raise the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction, they should consider these facts carefully. It may be that most very young children involved in the juvenile court are not ultimately adjudicated delinquent. But they are policed, interrogated, and must often sit in the offices of Department of Public Safety staffif not stand before a judge. Recognizing that there are ways other than traumatizing and stigma-inducing delinquency processes to address developmentally typical childhood misconduct would be a fitting tribute to the legacy of JDB.

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