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North Carolina Juvenile Crime Case Debated By U.S. Supreme Court

Anyone who has watched a police drama has heard the speech which begins: "You have the right to remain silent." It is the beginning of a statement known as Miranda Rights. Since 1966 police officers have been required to inform suspects that they don't have to incriminate themselves by answering any questions which they are asked. This is especially important before the suspect has a defense lawyer present.

But do Miranda rights apply to minors and juvenile crimes, especially when students are questioned in school? This is the issue which the U.S. Supreme Court is debating right now. The case involves the questioning of a North Carolina youth who was suspected of committing theft.

The incident happened in 2005 at a middle school in Chapel Hill. A school security officer pulled the 13-year-old boy out of class and brought him into a windowless conference room where he was questioned by police and the assistant principal.

The boy was suspected in some burglaries and thefts of local homes. During the questioning the boy confessed to the crimes. Later his confession was used against him in court and he was determined to be delinquent.

The problem is that the boy was never told that he did not have to answer their questions or incriminate himself. Since he was not under arrest he should have also been notified that he was free to leave at any time. None of the adults informed him of this. As a result his fifth-amendment rights were violated and he felt compelled to incriminate himself.

This case went first to the North Carolina Supreme Court and is now being argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The biggest issue in the case is determining if police are required to read Miranda Rights to juvenile suspects even when they are not formally under arrest.

Some Justices feel that it will needlessly impede a police officer's ability to do his job, especially because school-based officers conduct informal interviews on a daily basis. Other Justices argue that children do not always understand the difference between police and other adult authority figures and therefore it is even more important to inform them that they do not need to incriminate themselves.

The Supreme Court's decision could greatly impact how police interact with juvenile suspects. A decision is expected by June of this year and we will post updates as they become available.

Source: Education Week, "Justices Weigh Youth's Miranda Rights," Mark Walsh, 23 March 2011

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