Yesterday by a 5-4 vote the U.S. Supreme Court held that the police must consider a juvenile suspect's age in deciding whether the child is in custody and must be given Miranda warnings.
The ruling correctly overturned the state supreme court's decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina. But it did so through reasoning that is more vulnerable than it needs to be.
Justice Sonia Sotamayor wrote for the majority that when a middle-school student is called into the principal's office and interrogated by the police, it is reasonable to take into account that the student might not be as aware as an adult that the student has a right not to answer questions and can ask for a lawyer. Therefore, Sotomayor concluded, the student should have been read his Miranda rights.
Both the attorneys for North Carolina and the dissenters argue, however, that this ruling starts the criminal justice system on a slippery slope. Officials will have to decide in regard to various classes of defendants whether they are subjectively capable of being aware of their rights in the absence of Miranda warnings, even when they are not under arrest. That would indeed be a tricky task.
But it's not clear that the decision needs to rest on that basis. The majority might instead have built on the 2000 case of Bond v. United States. There, Chief Justice Rehnquist ruled for the Court that the Fourth Amendment had been violated when border police got on a Greyhound bus, squeezed various bags, and asked one passenger if they could open his luggage. He agreed, even though he had a block of methamphetamine in his bag. The police found it and arrested him.
Chief Justice Rehnquist held that no one in that situation would reasonably believe they could safely refuse to cooperate with the police--so passenger Bond was effectively coerced into giving consent to a search the police otherwise had no right to conduct.
The same logic applies to a seventh-grader who is required by the state to attend school, who is called down to the principal's office, and who is then asked to answer questions by the police. It is not really a matter of the student being a juvenile who does not have the knowledge of an adult. The student is as at least effectively a captive as the passenger on the bus--and similarly, no student would reasonably believe it is safe not to cooperate.
Rather than saying that Miranda warnings may be more necessary in the case of students because of their inexperience, then, the Court should stick to the reasoning that Miranda warnings and other Fourth Amendment protections apply when persons are being effectively coerced into cooperating. That, after all, is why we have the Miranda warnings in the first place.