Thursday, August 20, 2009

Miranda Rights and Juveniles

State of New Jersey in the Interest of A.S., August 12, 2009 - A Discussion

The facts in brief: A 14-year-old girl, A.S. was accused of molesting the 4-year-old grandson of her adoptive mother. Had she been an adult, the acts described would have constituted first-degree aggravated sexual assault. A.S. had been abandoned by her substance-abusing biological mother at the age of nine, and began living with her adoptive mother when she was eleven. She was reading at a third-grade level although she was in high school. She had no prior experience with the police, courts, or legal system.
After a detective with the county prosecutor's office interviewed the victim, A.S. appeared for questioning with her adoptive mother, at which time A.S. confessed to the acts alleged. At trial, the Family Court judge conducted a suppression hearing to determine the admissibility of this confession.
From the tape of the interview as well as A.S. testimony during the suppression hearing, the judge learned that the prosecutor had directed A.S.' mother to read to A.S. her Miranda warnings. When A.S. asked what a lawyer would do for her, her mother responded simply, "Suppose to represent you," and then told A.S. that she'd have to talk eventually and that they already knew what she'd done. A.S.' mother, without obtaining the juvenile's consent, told the prosecutor that he could question her. It was only then that A.S. signed the waiver.
When A.S. again asked what an attorney would do on her behalf, her mother and the prosecutor told her that he would represent her and ensure that her rights were not violated, but could not speak for her. She was told by her mother, "When the questions are asked, you have to answer the question" and by the prosecutor, "... you're the only one that can actually speak the truth here." A.S. was not asked again whether she would like to have an attorney; instead, her mother expressed impatience at the delay A.S. was creating and the prosecutor told A.S., "the truth is only gonna help you," and that "an attorney that's an assistant prosecutor was gonna review all this information," and "the more truthful you are and the more complete you are, okay, the better it looks for you, okay."
The two adults proceeded to question her until she confessed to the acts alleged. Throughout, the antagonism of her mother toward A.S. was clear as she repeatedly insisted that A.S. confess to the prosecutor.
During the hearing, A.S. stated that she understood "some of" her rights, and that when she refused to answer questions, she was intending to invoke her right to "remain silent," until she was badgered into responding. She also stated that she never asked for an attorney because they didn't do anything but just "sit there." The judge determined that the confession was indeed admissible, if troubling.

The issues: Was A.S.' waiver of her right to counsel and right to remain silent under Miranda v. Arizona given knowingly and voluntarily? Did A.S. invoke her right to remain silent?

The court's holding: The Appellate Division determined that the confession, in fact, should not have been admitted into evidence.
In the case of a juvenile, the standards regarding the waiver of Miranda rights are exacting.
As the court discussed, "To admit the confession of a juvenile over the age of fourteen, the State must demonstrate, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the statement was knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily given," based upon factors including the suspect's age, education, intelligence, advice as to constitutional rights, repetition and length of questioning, and the suspect's prior encounters with the law. When a juvenile is being interrogated, the role of a parent takes on a special significance. The parent’s role is to support the juvenile and guide her, not to be an additional adversary in an unfamiliar and intimidating setting. The court emphasized the necessity for adult protection with a juvenile suspect.
With regard to A.S. specifically, nothing was done to contribute to her comprehension of her rights, discuss whether waiver was an appropriate course for her to take, or explain to her what the practical effects of a waiver would be.
In addition, A.S.’ long silences suggested that she was indeed attempting to invoke her right to silence, requiring further inquiry from the prosecutor with regard to A.S. wishes, rather than further interrogation. The courts have held that a request by a defendant to terminate an interrogation must be scrupulously honored, no matter how ambiguous, even when the person being questioned is an adult. This requirement imposed by the courts upon prosecutors is all the more important when the suspect is a juvenile.
Most troubling to the court was the evident conflict of interest resulting from A.S.’ mother’s relationship to the victim and her actions in the best interests of her grandson, to the detriment of her adopted daughter. The purpose of a parent’s presence at the interrogation of a juvenile is to provide a buffer between law enforcement and the child. No such buffer was created here.
The facts of this case, reviewed as a whole, rendered A.S.’ confession substantially unfair. The court found that, “In circumstances such as those existing in the present matter, where the adult advisor is known to have a close family relationship to the victim and the alleged perpetrator, the prudent approach would be to require the presence of an attorney capable of advising the juvenile with respect to her rights and her potential culpability.”

The end result: In the end, the Appellate Division did uphold the adjudication of the Family Court. It had no choice, though it was gravely disturbed by the way the confession was handled and the findings of the Family Court judge with regard to its admissibility. The Family Court judge had indicated at trial that even without the confession he would have come to the same findings. It is the job of the Family Court judge to determine credibility, and he found the victim had given enough credible testimony to result in adjudication of A.S. as a delinquent and her registration with Megan's Law. It was not the place of the Appellate Division to dispute those findings.

What does all of this mean to you and your child?: The court has reiterated the great importance of protecting the rights of all defendants, but especially those of juveniles.

Certainly, if you have a conflict of interest with regard to a child in your care who has been arrested, it would be in the best interests of all concerned for you to obtain representation for the child to preserve his or her rights before any questioning begins. Failing to do so would merely drag out the process, harming the victim, harming the juvenile defendant, and increasing the expense.

If, as in most cases, you do not have a conflict of interest and are truly interested in protecting your child, do not allow him or her to be questioned without legal representation. If you cannot afford it, know that a public defender must be appointed on his or her behalf. Even if you can afford it, if there is no time given to you to to obtain private representation prior to initial questioning, a public defender must be assigned to protect your child. If you can obtain private representation, do so.

Prosecutors and police officers will always do all that is in their power to convince their suspect to waive his or her rights to counsel and silence and to confess; juveniles are treated no differently than adults in this. While they are not permitted to trample the rights of you or of your child, they will always, always tell you that it is in your child's best interest to talk, that the child would be helping himself and that they are there to help.

It is when they convince you of this, when you agree to permit your child to talk to the police or prosecutor unrepresented, that the defense attorney eventually retained to represent your child has the most difficult job ahead. It decreases the likelihood that your attorney can help, it decreases the likelihood that you will see a positive outcome to your child's case, and it increases the danger that your child will be adjudicated a delinquent and face the most severe types of punishment.

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