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Juveniles' Competence to Exercise Miranda Rights: An Empirical Study of Policy and Practice

By Barry C. Feld. Full text here.

The Supreme Court does not require any special procedural safeguards when police interrogate youths. Instead, it uses the adult standard—“knowing, intelligent, and voluntary under the totality of the circumstances”—to gauge the validity of juveniles’ waivers of Miranda rights. Developmental psychologists have examined adolescents’ capacity to exercise or waive Miranda rights. Their research questions whether juveniles possess the cognitive ability and adjudicative competence necessary to exercise legal rights, and contends that their immaturity and vulnerability make them uniquely susceptible to police interrogation tactics.

In the four decades since the Supreme Court decided Miranda, we have almost no empirical research about what actually occurs when police interview criminal suspects and we have no research about how police routinely question juveniles. Since 1994, the Minnesota Supreme Court has required police to record all interrogations of criminal suspects including juveniles. This Article begins to fill the empirical void about adolescents’ competence to exercise Miranda rights in the interrogation room. It analyzes quantitative and qualitative data—interrogation tapes and transcripts, police reports, juvenile court filings, and probation and sentencing reports—of routine police interrogation of sixty-six juveniles sixteen years of age or older and charged with felony-level offenses. It provides the first empirical test of adolescents’ ability to understand and to waive or invoke their Miranda rights. The article concludes with a discussion of policy implications and directions for further research.