Tips on Interviewing Juveniles
By: Sherri Bevan Walsh, Summit County Prosecutor
Imagine you get a call for a fight at your local mall. When you arrive, the mall security tells you that several people were involved. An 18-year-old male is en route to the hospital with an abdominal stab wound. The witnesses and suspects are between the ages of 13 and 19.
Should you handle interviewing the juveniles the same way you handle interviewing an adult? Does it matter if the juvenile is a witness or suspect?
Generally, the same rules for police interviews of adults apply to police interviews of juveniles. However, you must take extra care to ensure that the juvenile fully understands his rights. Police should consider the juvenile’s age and apparent cognitive ability to decide whether the juvenile is capable of waiving his rights and speaking with the police.
Age is not always an obvious indicator of the juvenile’s ability to knowledgeably waive Miranda rights. Certainly a 16- or 17-year-old without cognitive disabilities can be expected to competently waive his Miranda rights or refuse to speak with police. But what about someone who is 14 or 15? My office has seen many juveniles younger than 14 effectively waive their rights prior to an interrogation.
The witnesses to the mall fight in our example are free to speak with police if they choose. They are also free to refuse. This applies to witnesses of any age.
Similarly, suspects in custody are free to waive their Miranda rights regardless of their age. However, police should take steps to ensure that juveniles meet the standard of “knowingly and voluntarily” waiving their rights.
Does a parent or guardian need to be present when you interview a juvenile suspect? Like adults, juveniles have the right to request an attorney be present during an interrogation. Juveniles also have the right to request their parent or legal guardian be present.
The appellate courts have held that there is no constitutional requirement of parental or guardian presence during juvenile interviews. However, police need to ensure to the best of their ability that the juvenile thoroughly understands his Miranda rights and is voluntarily speaking with police. The presence of a parent or guardian during the interview is another factor that must be considered when determining whether the juvenile is sufficiently waiving his rights.
In general, the rights afforded juveniles and adults for interview purposes are the same. But it is important to remember that what might not be considered a custodial interview requiring Miranda warnings when an adult is questioned, may be considered a custodial interview when a juvenile is questioned. In addition, there are several additional factors that must be weighed when determining whether a juvenile suspect’s Miranda rights have been properly waived. This includes the juvenile’s age and apparent level of comprehension, as well as the presence of a parent/guardian or counsel. Police should also be on the lookout for signs that the juvenile waived his rights out of fear or because he did not fully understand those rights.
This article is not to be considered legal advice. Please consult your police legal advisor regarding any legal issue.