A divided Supreme Court said Thursday that police and courts must consider a child's age when examining whether a boy or girl is in custody, a move the court's liberals called "common sense" but the conservatives called an "extreme makeover" of Miranda rights.
The 5-4 decision came in a case in which police obtained a confession from a seventh-grade special education student while questioning him at school about a rash of break-ins in Chapel Hill, N.C., without reading him his Miranda rights, telling him he could leave or call his relatives.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a former prosecutor who wrote the opinion, said police have to consider the child's age before talking to him or her about a crime. Courts also have to take the child's age into consideration when deciding whether that confession can be used in court, she said.
"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 there was no reason for "police officers or courts to blind themselves to that commonsense reality."
But Justice Samuel Alito, also a former prosecutor, said the point of Miranda was that police would have clear, objective guidelines to follow. Opening the door to considering age likely will mean that other characteristics could soon be added to the list, such as educational level, I.Q. and cultural background, he said.
"Safeguarding the constitutional rights of minors does not require the extreme makeover of Miranda that today's decision may portend," Alito said in the dissent.
The special education student, known as JDB in court papers, was 13 in 2005 when he confessed while interviewed by police and school officials in a closed room at his school.
JDB's lawyer challenged the use of his confessions, saying his client had not been read his Miranda warning. Previous court rulings have required Miranda warnings before police interrogations for people who are in custody, which is defined as when a reasonable person would think he cannot end the questioning and leave.
The North Carolina Supreme Court refused to throw the confession out, saying courts cannot look at age when examining whether the boy thought he could leave. It also said the youth was never actually in custody since he had not been formally restrained and the door to the room was not guarded.
The high court sent the case back to North Carolina for reconsideration, saying it would not decide the custody issue but the courts should take into account JDB's age.
Sotomayor said it doesn't take college degrees or advanced training to know when police are dealing with an immature child. "They simply need the common sense to know that a 7-year-old is not a 13-year-old and neither is an adult," she said.
Sotomayor was joined in her opinion by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy. Voting with Alito were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Groups like the American Bar Association and the Juvenile Law Center cheered the ruling.
"Today's decision confirms that judges, law enforcement and other policymakers cannot disregard the age of children who come into contact with the justice system," said Marsha Levick, chief legal counsel of the Juvenile Law Center. "The court has conclusively, and repeatedly, held that children must be treated differently than adults."
The case is J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 09-11121.