Juvenile Miranda Waiver and Parental Rights

Harvard Law Review, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Juvenile Miranda Waiver and Parental Rights


Critics lament that Miranda waiver doctrine is broken for juveniles. But it is also broken for parents. Juvenile advocates speak of child suspects as independent actors with individual rights. Yet police questioning of minors also threatens the rights of parents, "perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by [the Supreme] Court." (1)

When the state threatens to break "familial bonds, it must provide the parents with fundamentally fair procedures." (2) Police interrogation currently creates a substantial risk that children will be removed from their parents after confessing falsely. Questioning may also cause psychological harm that damages the parent-child relationship. Though so far ignored in the constitutional analysis of juvenile justice, parental rights reinforce children's individual Miranda rights and demand strong prophylactic protections for interrogated children, far stronger than those provided by today's weakened adult Miranda regime.

This Note seeks to bring parental rights into the interrogation room. Part I outlines juvenile Miranda waiver, contrasting recent developments in the constitutional law of children with a stagnated waiver doctrine. Part II describes the nature of parental rights, explaining that courts apply the most searching scrutiny when parental rights cases involve a hybrid constitutional claim and when government action threatens custody. Synthesizing, Part III explains that juvenile interrogations violate hybrid parental-Miranda rights by threatening to elicit false confessions that remove innocent children from their parents' care. Per se rules offer solutions: either parents should be empowered to guard their interests through truly informed consent, or child suspects should be provided with other risk-reducing protections.

I. MIRANDA WAIVER FOR CHILD SUSPECTS

Interrogation coerces by design. (3) We regulate interrogation because it can go too far, harming suspects and producing unreliable confessions. (4) Common sense backed by brain science leaves no doubt that juveniles are often more vulnerable to the pressures of police questioning. (5) Protective procedures designed for adults offer limited help. Younger juveniles misunderstand Miranda warnings at alarming rates, (6) and developmental psychologists question whether minors are ever competent to make "knowing, intelligent, and voluntary" waivers of their rights. (7) For child victims and witnesses, police and judges have developed extensive protocols to ensure that statements are reliable, but there are no similar safeguards for juvenile suspects. (8) Instead, to take advantage of psychological reality, interrogation training instructs officers to treat children no differently than they do adults, except when employing strategies for manipulating children's special sensitivities. (9) These methods work. As a matter of course, questioned minors waive their rights and make incriminating statements. (10)

"[Y]oung people are especially prone to confessing falsely." (11) Juveniles account for as much as a third of documented false confessions. (12) Experimental results are consistent with this finding, (13) as are studies of the reliability of child witnesses. (14) The very young -- those under fifteen -- are most at risk. (15) Perversely, innocent children are especially likely to confess because suspects who did nothing wrong are more willing to begin frank conversations with police. (16) And even a false incriminating statement "leads almost ineluctably to a plea or conviction." (17)

A. Michael C.: An Adult Model Applied to Juvenile Waiver

For statements made during custodial interrogations to be admissible, the familiar rule of Miranda v. Arizona (18) requires that suspects waive their rights before questioning and after adequate warnings. (19) The bulk of Miranda litigation turns on (1) whether interrogation was "custodial" and (2) whether waiver was made "voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently. …

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