How Should Police Read Teen Suspects Their Rights? ; the Case of a 17-Year-Old before the Supreme Court Could Result in a Special Miranda Rule for Juveniles

Article excerpt

The US Supreme Court is in the midst of what could become a major reassessment of the rules surrounding when police must give Miranda warnings to criminal suspects.

In broad terms, the high court is being asked to decide whether police may deliberately delay reading Miranda warnings until an incriminating statement or evidence has already been obtained.

The court has heard three cases this term involving such efforts by police. Monday, the justices take up a fourth. In Yarborough v. Alvarado, the court will consider whether juveniles are entitled to more prompt Miranda warnings than adults.

The issue arises in the case of Michael Alvarado, who was convicted of second-degree murder for his alleged role in a 1995 killing in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Mr. Alvarado, who was not the triggerman, was convicted in large part as a result of incriminating statements he made about his involvement in the shooting during a two-hour interview with a police detective roughly a month after the murder. Alvarado was a 17-year-old high school student at the time.

The detective contacted Alvarado's mother and arranged for him to be brought to the police station for questioning. When Alvarado arrived with his parents, the detective denied the parents' request to remain with their son during the interview. Instead, Alvarado was questioned alone.

The two-hour session was tape-recorded, but at no time was Alvarado advised that he had a right to remain silent, a right to consult a lawyer prior to answering, or even the right to leave the police station at any time since he was not under arrest.

Arguments for Alvarado

Lawyers for Alvarado say juveniles should be treated more deferentially than adults because of their age and lack of experience with police. "The law has long given controlling weight to juvenile status in innumerable legal contexts, including interrogation because it creates a vulnerability repeatedly noted by this court as requiring additional care and concern in police- citizen interactions," says Alvarado's lawyer, Tara Allen, in her brief to the court.

The California Attorney General's Office and the US solicitor general have a different view. The key issue that triggers the requirement to give a Miranda warning is whether Alvarado was "in custody" at the time of the police interview, not the suspect's age or level of experience with police, says Deborah Jane Chuang, a California deputy attorney general, in her brief to the court.

Miranda warnings stem from a 1966 landmark case, Miranda v. Arizona, which mandated that police must warn a criminal suspect of his rights at the time the suspect is taken into custody. Under the Miranda decision if police fail to give the warning, any statements made to police prior to the warning must be barred from use as evidence.

But here's the catch: Miranda warnings are only required for questioning done once a suspect has been taken into custody "or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way," according to the Miranda opinion. …