Police Questioning of Juveniles

By Emma Kruger

Police interrogation can be intimidating even for adults, but the experience of police questioning for a juvenile suspected of committing or witnessing a crime can be even more overwhelming. Police interrogation practices often do not differ for children, but children’s experience of them and their capacity to adequately make choices in the interrogation room, regardless of police pressure, is different than adults. Much research has been done on child development, and how children’s brains differ from adults. Children are not able to understand their rights and the consequences of their actions to the same degree as adults.[1] For these reasons, children are particularly vulnerable to coercive tactics used by the police.[2] These tactics can result in false confessions or false witness testimony from children because they are not able to process the experience of being questioned properly.[3] Courts and the Supreme Court have repeatedly treated children differently than adults in a variety of contexts, but this has not yet translated to the police station interrogation room. There should be greater procedural safeguards to ensure child witnesses are protected, child suspects maintain their rights, and the justice process is served.

Children are often not able to make the same reasoned and informed decisions as adults during interrogation.[4] Juveniles are more impulsive and often make decisions based on their emotions, which is only exacerbated by stressful situations.[5] Research has also shown that children have skewed perceptions of time, meaning that juvenile thinking “tends either to ignore or discount future events and implications.”[6] This results in rash decisions, often for immediate payouts at the cost of long-term consequences.[7] Children are also particularly susceptible to pressure from adults and police, who they see as authority figures.[8] Because of these differences, children falsely confess at a higher rate than adults.[9] In a study involving juveniles and adults, thirty-one percent of juveniles falsely confessed, which was twice the number of false confessions seen in their adult counterparts.[10] Juveniles are at a different place in their development than adults, and it follows that they should be treated differently in the legal system.

The Supreme Court has decided many cases on the rights of children, and it has often noted that children’s experiences differ from adults, and thus, their legal treatment should also differ. One of these cases is J.D.B. v. North Carolina from 2011.[11] In J.D.B., the Court ruled that the determination of custody must consider the age of a suspect who is a child, as long as the age of the suspect is apparent or known to the officer at the time of the interview.[12] The Court has also repeatedly stated that children should be treated differently when it comes to sentencing.[13] However, recognition of children’s differences does not describe the entirety of case law when it comes to minors’ legal treatment by the Court.

At other instances, the Court has declined to offer juveniles further protections despite their developmental differences.[14] The Court did not offer separate treatment for juveniles in Fare v. Michael C., where the Court stated that the totality of the circumstances test used to determine if a Miranda waiver was voluntary is the correct test for juveniles when evaluating their waiver of Miranda.[15] However, research has shown that children cannot truly understand their Miranda rights.[16] A study found that ninety-nine percent of twelve to nineteen-year-olds did not understand their right to silence and ninety-four percent of that study group did not understand the consequences of waiving their rights.[17] Despite this, courts frequently conclude that children have made such waivers knowingly and voluntarily.[18] The totality of the circumstances test for waiver found in Miranda, although in theory accounts for a child’s age, research indicates there is often no way for a child to make an adequate and knowing waiver.[19] Thus, treating children legally the same as adults, often disadvantages them and discounts their rights.

There are multiple options to remedy infringing on children’s rights and prevent producing involuntary and false confessions and statements from juvenile witnesses. One option is to simply not allow children under a certain age to waive their Miranda rights.[20] An alternative, if there were concerns of impeding police investigations, would be to allow juveniles to waive their right to remain silent, but not their right preventing self-incrimination.[21] This would mean that children could speak to police freely, but any confession or statement would not be admissible against them in court.[22] Another safeguard that could be implemented would be to ban interrogation methods that are manipulative in juvenile interrogations.[23] Requiring parents or legal counsel to be present during questioning could be utilized as well. However, some children may not have a trusted parent or parental figure in their lives, in which case having a parent present could add to the coercive atmosphere of the questioning. Regardless of the ameliorating method chosen, it is vital that the existing legal framework change to protect the rights of children questioned by police. As the legal framework for juveniles stands, they are far too vulnerable to manipulative tactics of police.

**Emma Kruger is a Staff Member of Volume 41 of the Minnesota Journal of Law & Inequality


[1] Maxwell J. Fabiszewski, Major Reforms for Minors’ Confessions: Rethinking Self-Incrimination Protections for Juveniles, 61 B.C. L. Rev. 2643 (2020).

[2] Id. at 2671.

[3] Id. at 2687 (“As a result, the self-incrimination doctrine leaves juveniles exposed to gross injustice by recognizing as legally voluntary and admissible confessions of dubious actual volition that are at best unreliable.”).

[4] Id. at 2643.

[5] Patrick M. McMullen, Questioning the Questions: The Impermissibility of Police Deception in Interrogations of Juveniles, 99 Nw. L. Rev. 971, 995 (2005)

[6] Id. at 995 (outlining that children in interrogations may have an immediate want to get out of custody or go home and end the interrogation, and thus may not adequately weigh the implications of a confession or false statement).

[7] Fabiszewski, supra note 4, at 2671.

[8] Id.; McMullen, supra note 5, at 997.

[9] Id. at 2658.

[10] Id. at 2658 n.55 (citing Joshua A. Tepfer, Laura H. Nirider & Lynda M. Tricarico, Arresting Development: Convictions of Innocent Youth, 62 Rutgers L. Rev. 887, 904 (2010)).

[11] J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011).

[12] J.D.B., 564 U.S. 261.

[13] Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) (ruling that life without parole was a cruel and unusual punishment for a fourteen-year-old murder); Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (stating that the execution of minors is cruel and unusual); Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010) (outlining that life without parole for a juvenile who committed a non-homicide offense violated the Eighth Amendment).

[14] McMullen, supra note 5, at 992. See generally, Fabiszewski, supra note 4.

[15] Id. at 2668 (citing Fare v. Michael C., 442 U.S. at 725 (1979).

[16] Id. at 2669.

[17] Id. at 2670.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at 2671.

[20] Id. at 2679.

[21] Id. at 2690.

[22] Id. (stating that this would allow police to investigate the statements of juveniles and corroborate any confession or statement pointing out guilt with hard evidence, allowing for

[23] Id. at 2681 (opining that the Reid method, a common and particularly manipulative method of interrogations should be banned for police interrogations of juveniles).