Can a Juvenile's Confession Be Used Against Them in Court?

PA Superior Court Finds Juvenile's Waiver of Miranda Rights Involuntary

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of In Re: N.B., finding that the trial court properly suppressed N.B.'s confession due to an involuntary waiver of N.B.'s Miranda rights. The Court's ruling relied heavily on the fact that the juvenile defendant's mother essentially forced him to confess to the police, thereby rendering his decision to waive his Miranda rights and confess involuntary. 

In the Interest of N.B.

The facts of In Re: N.B. were relatively straight forward. The defendant’s mother believed that N.B. and his twin brother, D.B., engaged in sexual misconduct involving a 9-year-old girl who lived in a neighboring apartment. On April 29, 2015, the mother confronted both the defendant and his brother about her suspicions. The mother subsequently reported the allegations to the defendant’s school district because she was concerned about his behavior.

A lieutenant with the Bradford Police Department contacted the mother and asked her to bring in the defendant and his brother to the police station for an interview. The mother complied and brought both boys to the police station to be interviewed about the sexual misconduct allegations. The lieutenant then read both the brothers Miranda warnings and explained to the mother that although she could be present for the interviews, he preferred to interview the boys individually and alone. The warnings were read to defendant and his brother “quickly.” The mother agreed to allow the defendant to be interviewed alone. The mother told defendant to “be brave [and] to tell the truth” prior to exiting the room. This interrogation was recorded.

The defendant fully complied with his mother’s instructions and confessed to numerous sex crimes involving the nine-year-old girl and agreed to speak with the lieutenant again if necessary. The defendant’s brother also complied with his mother’s instructions and confessed to numerous sex acts with the same girl. Consequently, on October 16, 2015, the Commonwealth filed a written allegation of delinquency based on the defendant’s confession. On December 1, 2015, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the confession. On February 17, 2016, a the family court held a suppression hearing. The mother, the lieutenant, and the defendant testified at this hearing.

The mother testified that the defendant suffered from developmental delays and had difficulty in school. The mother stated that she repeatedly told the lieutenant that she wanted to get her son the help and treatment that he needed, in addition to the consequences for his actions. She also explained that she did not believe the defendant knew that he could refuse to answer the lieutenant’s questions or leave the police station.

The defendant testified that he was in the seventh grade when this occurred. He stated that although he was older than his classmates, he was “behind” in school. He further testified that he had difficulty learning, paying attention, and understanding his teacher’s instructions. Additionally, he testified that he was failing some classes and that he received mental health treatment in school.

In regards to the legal system, the defendant testified that he did not know anything about it. In regards to Miranda warnings, the defendant did not attach any significance to them other than associating them with a television show. Further, he explained that he did not understand that he could refuse to answer the lieutenant’s questions or leave the police station. The defendant testified that he believed had to comply with his mother’s instructions.

The lieutenant testified at the suppression hearing, too. He testified that he did not yell or threaten the defendant. Further, he stated that he was calm during the questioning and the defendant was not restrained in any way. He also testified that the door to the room was closed, but not locked during questioning.

At the conclusion of the evidence and arguments, the suppression court filed an order granting the defendant’s motion to suppress. Specifically, the suppression court found that the defendant had not waived his Miranda rights knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently. The suppression court also found the defendant to be credible in his testimony. The Commonwealth appealed. 

Does the Law treat Juveniles Differently from Adults When Considering Whether a Waiver of Miranda was Knowingly, Voluntarily and Intelligently?

The answer is yes. A popular misconception is that if the police do not read you your Miranda warnings, then the case against you should be thrown out. This is not correct. An officer’s failure to read you your Miranda warnings is only relevant when you are 1) in custody for purposes of Miranda and 2) you are asked questions that are reasonably likely to illicit an incriminating response. If those two prongs are not satisfied, then you will not be successful in a motion to suppress. If an officer does read you your Miranda rights, you can still be successful in suppressing your statement if you did not provide a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of those rights. Therefore, if you are charged with a crime and provided the police with a statement, you need a skilled attorney who is capable of suppressing the statement.  

Juvenile adolescent development has been a hot topic issue in United States Supreme Court jurisprudence. Most of the jurisprudence focused on punishment (i.e. whether a juvenile could get the death penalty or whether a juvenile could serve the rest of his/her life in prison). However, not all cases focused on punishment. For example, in 2011, the United States Supreme Court announced its decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina. This decision focused on juveniles and Miranda. In this case, the Court held that the age of a child is relevant when determining whether a juvenile is in custody for purposes of Miranda. As such, a child does not necessarily have to be in a police station to be in custody for purposes of Miranda. A teacher’s classroom could satisfy this element based on the facts of the particular case.

What Factors Apply to Whether a Juvenile's Mirandized Statement Will Be Admissible?

In Pennsylvania, courts will look at several factors in determining whether or not a juvenile has waived his Miranda rights. Specifically, the court will look at: the juvenile’s age, experience with the criminal justice system, comprehension, whether an interested adult is present, the duration and means of the interrogation, the defendant’s physical and psychological state, the conditions attendant to the detention, the attitude of the interrogator, and any other factors that could drain a person’s ability to withstand suggestion and coercion. As one can see, this is a very fact intensive inquiry. Courts do not go through the same level of intensiveness when determining whether an adult made a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of his or her Miranda rights.

PA Superior Court Upholds the Suppression Court’s Order Suppressing Defendant’s Statement Because His Waiver Was Not Knowing, Intelligent and Voluntary.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld the Suppression Court’s order suppressing the defendant’s statement. In its opinion, the Superior Court focused on several points. First, and arguably most importantly, the court found that the defendant did not have an interested adult present with him when making his waiver. The Superior Court found that because the defendant’s mother instructed him to “be brave [and] tell the truth” she was not considered an “interested person.” Instead, defendant believed he was forced to be there by his mother and that he had to confess.

Additionally, the Superior Court considered the fact that the defendant was intellectually limited, which supported his position that he did not understand his rights, specifically that he was not allowed to leave. Because the trial court found him to be credible, the Superior Court had to adopt that conclusion as well. The Superior Court therefore found that the defendant has basically been coerced into waiving his rights by the circumstances and the orders from his mother. It held that the defendant did not make a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of his Miranda rights.

Motions to Suppress Statements

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers

Successfully moving to suppress a statement is a very fact intensive exercise that requires a skilled attorney. If you are charged with a crime and you gave a statement to the police, you need an attorney with the knowledge and expertise to fight your case. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully litigated countless suppression motions. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today.