Real Interrogation: What Actually Happens When Cops Question Kids

By Feld, Barry C. | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Real Interrogation: What Actually Happens When Cops Question Kids


Feld, Barry C., Law & Society Review


Although the Supreme Court repeatedly cautioned that youthfulness adversely affects juveniles' ability to exercise Miranda rights or make voluntary statements, it endorsed the adult waiver standard-knowing, intelligent, and voluntary-to gauge juveniles' Miranda waivers. By contrast, developmental psychologists question whether young people understand or possess the competence necessary to exercise Miranda rights. This article analyzes quantitative and qualitative data of interrogations of three hundred and seven (307) sixteen- and seventeen-year old youths charged with felony offenses. It reports how police secure Miranda waivers, the tactics they use to elicit information, and the evidence youths provide. The findings bear on three policy issues- procedural safeguards for youths, time limits for interrogations, and mandatory recording of interrogations.

The Supreme Court has decided more cases about interrogating youths than any other aspect of juvenile justice (Haley v. Ohio 1948; Gallegos v. Colorado 1962; In re Gault 1967; Fare v. Michael C. 1979; Yarborough v. Alvarado 2004; J.D.B. v. North Carolina 2011). Although the Court repeatedly cautioned that youthfulness adversely affects juveniles' ability to exercise Miranda rights or make voluntary statements, it has not required special procedures to protect young suspects. Rather, it endorsed the adult standard-knowing, intelligent, and voluntary-to gauge juveniles' Miranda waivers (Fare v. Michael C. 1979).

By contrast, developmental psychologists question whether young people understand Miranda or possess the competence necessary to exercise rights. Younger and mid-adolescent youths may not understand Miranda's words or the rights it conveys, may not be as competent as adults are to exercise rights, and may require additional protections (Grisso 1980; Grisso et al. 2003). However, most youths sixteen years of age and older appear to understand Miranda on par with adults, although they lack mature judgment and remain susceptible to influence by adult authority (Grisso 1980, 1981). Youth's vulnerabilities increase their likelihood to confess falsely (Kassin et al. 2010).

This article empirically analyzes what happens when police interrogate older youths charged with felony offenses. Part I analyzes the legal framework of juvenile interrogation and research on adolescents' competence to exercise rights. Part II examines interrogation tactics and empirical research on interrogation practices. Part III describes the study's data and methodology. Part IV presents quantitative and qualitative data about routine interrogation of 307 delinquents sixteen years of age or older whom prosecutors charged with felonies. It reviews how police secure Miranda waivers, how they question youths, and how juveniles respond. Part V considers policy implications of the study.

Interrogating Juveniles: Legal Expectations and Developmental Psychology

Haley v. Ohio (1948) and Gallegos v. Colorado (1962) held that youthfulness, lengthy questioning, and absence of counsel or parents rendered juveniles' statements involuntary. In re Gault (1967) granted delinquents the privilege against self-incrimination, among other procedural rights, and reiterated concern about youths' vulnerability during questioning. In re Winship (1970) and Breed v. Jones (1975) fostered a further procedural convergence between juvenile and criminal courts (Feld 1999). Fare v. Michael C. (1979) held that the totality of the circumstances test used to evaluate adults' Miranda waivers governed juveniles' waivers. Fare held that Miranda provided an objective basis to evaluate waivers, denied that developmental differences necessitated special procedures, and required children to assert rights clearly. J.D.B. v. North Carolina (2011) ruled that age was an objective factor and concluded that officers could evaluate how a youth's age would affect feelings of custodial restraint.

Most states use the same Miranda framework for juveniles and adults and require only an understanding of rights and not collateral consequences (Feld 2006a, 2006b). …

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