Law enforcement officers have frequently found it quite simple to elicit incriminating statements from juvenile offenders. Often, all the arresting officers have to do is listen. Juveniles are known for their propensity to speak out of turn and to provide information without being asked. Many successful prosecutions have been based upon unsolicited statements by juvenile offenders. Also, while many state criminal statutes draw a clear distinction between crimes committed by minors and those committed by adults, the requirement to inform a suspect of his or her constitutional rights against self-incrimination are less clear-cut than many assume. With the increase in violent crimes committed by minors over the past 30 years, the distinction between adult and juvenile offenders has become blurred, especially when the violence involves organized criminal activity, such as that perpetrated by gangs. Courts, consequently, have proven receptive to law enforcement interviews that do not involve coercive measures.
The 1966 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona required that suspects in police custody be informed of their Constitutional rights, in particular, those guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment (which states that “No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself . . .’’). This procedure, known as “being Mirandized,” has since become a routine element in the U.S. criminal justice system. Its application in practice, however, has occasionally been subject to interpretation. No suspect can be compelled to answer questions during an interrogation. There is a substantial “grey area,” however, involving statements by suspects that are not elicited by a law enforcement officer. A suspect is not required to answer questions, but information offered by a suspect is not covered by the Miranda process. Juvenile offenders, who often like to talk, including to the police officers who are transporting them or interviewing them, often fall into this trap, but so do some adults.
Compounding the “problem” from the perspective of juvenile offenders and their legal representatives is the absence of any distinctions in Miranda v. Arizona regarding the age of suspects. Consequently, the 2004 Supreme Court decision in Yarborough v. Alvarado included the following statement by Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority:
“The state court’s failure to consider Alvarado’s age and inexperience does not provide a proper basis for finding that the state court’s decision was an unreasonable application of clearly established law. The Court’s opinions applying the Miranda custody test have not mentioned the suspect’s age, much less mandated its consideration. The only indications in those opinions relevant to a suspect’s experience with law enforcement have rejected reliance on such factors.”
In short, the case of then-17-year-old Michael Alvarado, whose conviction was based largely on comments he provided to police officers during an interview to which his parents voluntarily brought him, proved once again that the earlier Miranda decision is no guarantee against one’s statements being used against oneself, whether adult or juvenile, in a criminal trial. Whether special efforts should be made to ensure that juvenile suspects are aware of their constitutional rights is up to the individual observer to decide. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has spoken.