Do Children Really Understand Their Miranda Rights?

In light of a recent event, in which Ashley, a 10 year old girl was arrested and interrogated for the alleged sexual assault of a 4 year old boy while playing doctor, I have begun to wonder, among other things, “Do children really understand their Miranda rights?”

Miranda rights are procedural safeguards under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment to protect an accused from being compelled to self-incrimination during a custodial interrogation.  If the accused expresses a wish to remain silent or consult an attorney, the interrogation may not continue and any statement made during this interrogation may not be used against the accused in court.

The warning must be given by the interrogating officer to the accused when she is in custody, before starting the interrogation.  There also must be clear and convincing evidence that the accused has freely and voluntarily (without duress or coercion) given a waiver of her rights, either express or implied.  There is no clear holding stating that Miranda rights apply with full force to juvenile proceedings, but if it does, how do they apply?  

Photo courtesy of http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2166604/Do-pick-nose--Jimmy-Kimmel-interrogates-children-lie-detector-colander-flashing-lights.html

Photo courtesy of http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2166604/Do-pick-nose–Jimmy-Kimmel-interrogates-children-lie-detector-colander-flashing-lights.html

This is where things start looking unfair.  The officer must read the statutory language to the accused to let her know what her rights are.    The officer’s duty is to read the statutory language, but he does not have an obligation to “dumb down” the language to make sure the accused REALLY understood what was being said to her.   If the accused is a minor, there is less of a chance that she completely understood what her rights are and how to invoke those rights.  In Ashley’s case, I don’t need to be in the interrogation room to seriously doubt she understood what was being said to her by the police officers questioning her.  Most likely, she was too frightened by the unfortunate chain of events (arrested by police officers, carried off in a police car 2 months after the incident occurred, and kept away from her mother) to be able to fully comprehend the situation.

Children are easily influenced.  They may think they know something, but they quickly change their answers when they’re told that they’re wrong.  They change their answers for a number of reasons, such as a desire to please others, to feel accepted, to avoid punishment, or because they really are unsure about what is right or wrong, or what had happened.   Considering this, it is unsurprising that children are more susceptible to false confessions.  They may seem to understand and voluntarily waive their rights.  However, they may just be saying they understand and voluntarily give up their rights because they are unable to fully comprehend the consequences of such a waiver.   Furthermore, children don’t really remember what happened months ago.  They mostly think about what is happening TODAY and NOW.  Ashley probably forgot about what she did while playing doctor and must have been frantic and confused about what she might have done to deserve such punishment.

Despite this, the standards for what one must do to invoke one’s Miranda rights are, unfortunately, the same for both adults and children.   An accused is charged with the knowledge that in order to invoke their rights, they must ask for counsel and clearly state that they want to remain silent.  It is very unlikely that children know this.  They may initially refuse to speak to the interrogating officer, but with a few words here and there by the police officer, they may begin to talk.  

This brings us to another issue: coercion.  Courts don’t seem to think that lying or asking suggestive, leading questions by the interrogating officer is considered coercion.  Anything short of violent contact between the officer and the accused is not coercion.  But again, children are easily coerced.  It only takes a small head shake or nod or smile or frown to get them to rethink their answers.  Ashley was in interrogation for 45 minutes, without her mother, and she came out in tears.  45 minutes broke down this little girl, and one can only imagine what was said to her and what she said to the officer in that interrogation room.  She probably didn’t know that she could refuse to talk to the officer.  She also probably didn’t know that she could ask for an attorney.  She probably didn’t even know what an attorney was.

Not even adults fully understand what Miranda rights are, and how to invoke them, as demonstrated by the numerous Supreme Court cases discussing Miranda rights.  How can one expect a child to understand?  Yes, the court will consider the totality of the circumstances (age, experience, education), but a minor is still a minor.  Their thought process works differently from adults.  They process information differently, and they are generally less capable of thinking through the effects and consequences of their actions.  This is why juvenile court was formed, to provide children with a kinder, gentler process of showing them what is right, what they did wrong, and how they will be punished for their actions, without resorting to the criminal system and punishments.

This question of Miranda rights and juveniles goes much deeper.  The Miranda warnings are in place to protect our Constitutional rights.  However, there is much debate over whether children get the same Constitutional protection as adults.  Some argue that giving children more rights will ultimately take away flexibility and informality in juvenile proceedings, which are the supposed benefits of the juvenile system.  Without these factors, there is no significant difference between the juvenile and criminal systems.  But how much is too much and how little is too little?  

There doesn’t really seem to be an answer for many of these questions, but all we can hope for is a little more consideration and leniency for children and young adults.

Esther Kim

About Esther Kim

Esther Kim is a second year student at the University of Houston Law Center. She graduate from Wesleyan University in 2007 with a B.A. in Liberal Arts with a focus in Chinese Language and Literature. As an undergraduate, she worked one summer at the Citizens' Committee for Children, New York, a child advocacy organization, where she developed an interest in children's rights, community after-school resources, and immigration. Prior to law school, she worked as a paralegal at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, LLP in New York City. Esther is interested in adoptions and child neglect and abuse.

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