The court ruled in favor of a 13-year-old who confessed to a burglary during a schoolhouse interrogation before being given a Miranda warning.
But dissenting conservative justices said that the majority was “embarking on a new expansion” of suspects’ rights.
“Safeguarding the constitutional rights of minors does not require the extreme makeover of Miranda that today’s decision may portend,” wrote Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
The dueling opinions from Sotomayor and Alito, the court’s two former prosecutors, came in one of several criminal cases the justices decided Thursday as the court entered the homestretch of its term. The court now has 14 cases remaining to be decided before its scheduled adjournment June 27.
The 1966 decision in
Miranda v. Arizona
might be one of the court’s most well known: Its requirement that police inform suspects that they have the right to remain silent and to legal counsel and that anything they say can be used against them is ubiquitous in television crime shows.
But the warning is required only when a suspect is considered to be in the custody of police. The court has said that custody question depends on how a “reasonable person” — rather than the particular person being interviewed — would “perceive his or her freedom to leave.”
The case before the court involved a Chapel Hill, N.C., middle-schooler identified in court papers as J.D.B. He was called out of class and questioned for more than 30 minutes by two law enforcement officers and two school administrators. His legal guardian, his grandmother, was not called.
Encouraged to “help yourself by making it right” and threatened with juvenile detention, he confessed to his role in two home break-ins. He then was told he could refuse to answer more questions and was free to leave, but he continued to provide details.
His attorney argued later that his confession should not be admissible. But the North Carolina Supreme Court held that the boy was not in custody at the time of his statements and that it would not “extend the test for custody to include consideration of the age” of the questioned individual.
Sotomayor said that was wrong.
“It is beyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave,” Sotomayor said, adding that there was no reason “for police officers or courts to blind themselves to that commonsense reality.”
She was joined by the court’s consistent liberals — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan — and by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Kennedy has been the author of the court’s most notable rulings that “children are different” — holding that minors may not be executed or sentenced to life inprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes other than murder.