Youth Purported to Be 9 Needed to Hear Miranda Rights

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A youth who was questioned in connection with several burglaries was entitled to be read his Miranda rights during an initial interview even though the investigating officer believed the suspect to be under the age of 10 and had no intention of arresting him, the state Superior Court has ruled.

A divided three-judge panel of the Superior Court ruled "In the Interest of B.T." that information the teen gave to a police officer when the officer believed the teen was 9 years old -- and therefore could not be under arrest for the crimes -- must be suppressed because the officer failed to warn the teen of his Miranda rights before the interview. The decision reverses the juvenile court's decision to allow the evidence.

According to the majority's opinion, the officer had been acting on false information provided by the teen's father that he was under 10 years old. Later discovery determined that the boy was approximately 15 years old.

Writing the opinion for the majority, Judge Eugene B. Strassburger III found the issue to be straightforward.

"Regardless of what the police thought or why they thought it, the fact of the matter is that appellant had the right to remain silent rather than to incriminate himself," he said. "That the police had a good-faith belief that appellant was incapable of incriminating himself does not alter the reality that appellant was so capable."

Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen, in her concurring and dissenting opinion, held that B.T. was not in custody when he was initially interviewed, and therefore the rights did not attach.

"In sum, because B.T. was neither in 'custody' or subject to 'interrogation' for Miranda purposes, the learned juvenile court properly denied his suppression motion," Judge Allen said. "The fact that [the investigating officer] subsequently learned information that permitted B.T.'s arrest for the burglaries does not retroactively convert B.T.'s interaction with the police on July 1, 2011, into a 'custodial interrogation.'"

According to Judge Strassburger, on July 1, 2011, a police detective went to B.T.'s home to investigate a series of burglaries. B.T.'s father told the detective that his son was 9 years old and produced documents indicating that B.T. was born in November 2002. The detective then told B.T.'s father that the boy was too young to be charged with the crime, but that he still wanted to talk to him about additional burglaries. After telling B.T.'s father that the boy could not be charged with a crime, the father gave permission for the detective to take B.T. to the police station.

At the station, B.T. ate pizza while the detective interviewed him for approximately one hour, Judge Strassburger said. The detective subsequently drove the boy home and B.T. pointed out houses that he and others had burglarized.

More than one month later, B.T. was caught in the act of another burglary, according to Judge Strassburger. After some information surfaced indicating B.T. was approximately 15 years old, he was arrested for the burglary, as well as those he admitted to during the initial interview.

During a suppression hearing, B.T.’s attorneys argued that the statements he made during the initial interview should be excluded because they were given during a custodial detention and he had not been advised of his Miranda rights. The confession, B.T. argued, was not knowing, intelligent and voluntary.

The court denied the suppression motion, and B.T. was later adjudicated delinquent.

According to Judge Strassburger, the juvenile court found that B.T. was in custody and subject to interrogation; however, the court determined that it was not "police custody in such a manner that would trigger" Miranda warnings.

The juvenile court judge acknowledged that there was no authority on this point, but said the detective did not owe B.T. Miranda warnings because he believed the boy could not be prosecuted, and thus there was no reason to give him the warnings.

However, according to Judge Strassburger, the juvenile court judge focused on the father allegedly deceiving the detective and potentially engaging in immigration fraud, as some of the documents supporting his 2002 birth date were immigration papers.

"Under the unique circumstances of this case, we are constrained to conclude that the juvenile court erred in focusing on the 'fraud' perpetrated by the appellant's father and the good faith of the police officers, rather than whether appellant was deprived of his constitutional rights," the judge wrote. "That appellant's father provided the police with inaccurate information about appellant's age did not waive or negate appellant's constitutional rights."

For B.T.'s attorney, Karl Baker of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the case was a straightforward issue of a suspect who was taken into custody, interrogated and not given his rights.

"There's nothing unusual or miraculous about the holding of the court," he said. "It may be an unusual case, but the decision itself is a standard legal analysis."


Max Mitchell: mmitchell@alm.com or 215-557-2354. Read stories like this at www.legalintelligencer.com.

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