A Reflection on the 10-Year Anniversary of J.D.B. v. North Carolina
By: LaToya B. Powell, Assistant Legal Counsel, NC Administrative Office of the Courts
In 2009, while working in the Appellate Section at the NC Department of Justice, I was assigned to represent the State of NC in J.D.B.’s appeal to the NC Supreme Court. My first reaction, after reading the transcripts and the juvenile-appellant’s brief, was that the State probably needed to concede the issue of whether the juvenile was in custody at the time he made incriminating statements to officers. As an attorney (and as a mother), it seemed obvious to me that a 13-year-old child being questioned by a police officer under those circumstances – i.e., in a closed room at school with four adults present, two of whom were police officers – would not have felt free to terminate the encounter and leave. However, after consulting my supervisor and researching the relevant law, I realized that the Miranda custody standard, at that time, considered only whether a “reasonable person,” not a reasonable 13-year-old, would have believed he was in custody at the time of questioning. The “reasonable person” test was a different question and one for which the State could make a reasonable argument that the juvenile was not in custody. And, we made that argument all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.
In reaching the decision that a child’s age must be considered as part of the objective Miranda custody test, the Supreme Court of the United States largely focused on the “commonsense conclusions about behavior and perception” that universally apply to children. J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261, 272 (2011). As the Supreme Court explained, children are less mature than adults, lack good judgment, and are more likely to submit to authority figures, like police officers. This commonsense reality is what led to my initial reaction to the case, and it’s why I agree with the Court’s decision to create the “reasonable child” standard for custodial interrogations of children. Being involved in a case that has had such an important impact on juvenile law, not just in NC, but nationwide, has been one of the highlights of my legal career. I am proud to join the Office of the Juvenile Defender in recognizing the 10th Anniversary of this monumental case.