By Lisa Judge, Police Legal Advisor, Tucson, Arizona
The answer is No, according to a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Yarborough v. Alvarado, the Court further clarified the concept of custody in determining whether Miranda warnings are necessary when a juvenile is interrogated, and held that a trial court need not consider age in determining whether a "reasonable person" is in custody for Miranda purposes.1
Seventeen-year-old Michael Alvarado and an accomplice, Paul Soto, attempted to steal a truck from the owner in a shopping center parking lot. When the owner refused to comply with Soto's demand for money and keys to the truck, Soto shot him to death. Alvarado helped Soto dispose of the gun after the murder. Several weeks after the murder, a detective contacted Alvarado's mother, wanting to speak with Alvarado. Alvarado was taken to the station by his parents and interviewed by the detective while his parents were asked to wait in the lobby.
Alvarado was interviewed by Detective Comstock about his involvement in the carjacking murder for approximately two hours. He was not given Miranda warnings at any time during the interview and was never told that he was free to leave. Several times during the interview the detective asked him if he needed a break. After making statements about his involvement in the crime, he was allowed to go home with his parents. Several months later he was charged with first-degree murder and attempted robbery.
Alvarado sought suppression of the statement made to Detective Comstock at the police station, because he had not been given Miranda warnings prior to making the statement. The California trial court allowed use of the statement, ruling that Alvarado was not in custody at the time he spoke with Comstock, so Miranda warnings were not necessary. Alvarado took the stand during trial, stating that his interview with the detective "was a pretty friendly conversation" and that there had been a "free flow" between him and the detective and he did not "feel coerced or threatened in any way." Alvarado's testimony about his involvement in the crime contradicted his statement to the detective, so portions of the interview were used to impeach Alvarado.
Alvarado was convicted of the offenses and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. He appealed his conviction based upon the failure to receive Miranda warnings but was unsuccessful. He then sought review from the federal court via habeas corpus. At the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Alvarado's conviction was reversed, based upon that court's belief that subjective information, such as age and experience, must be a factor in determining whether a person is in custody for Miranda purposes, and that the state court was mistaken in refusing to take Alvarado's age into account. The Supreme Court's decision reversed the Ninth Circuit, and once again restated that a custody determination should be based upon an objective, reasonable-person standard.
At least since 1976 it has been clear that Miranda warnings are required only when a person is subjected to "custodial interrogation."2 To provide law enforcement officers with workable, clear-cut guidelines, the Supreme Court has provided guidance throughout the years on what constitutes "custody" and "interrogation" for Miranda purposes. The Court has been careful to craft rules that are objective and somewhat easy for officers to follow when deciding under what circumstances Miranda warnings are necessary.
Generally speaking with regard to custody, "the initial determination of custody depends on the objective circumstances of the interrogation, not on the subjective views harbored by either the interrogating officers or the person being questioned."3 The test for determining whether a person is in custody for Miranda purposes is an objective one and involves two considerations: (1) what are "the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, and (2) given those circumstances, whether a reasonable person would have felt free to terminate the interrogation and leave."4 This test employs an objective, reasonable-person standard and does not require police officers to make subjective determinations about a person's state of mind, level of sophistication, or age prior to questioning that person.
In applying this test to Alvarado's interrogation, the Court determined that it was reasonable for the trial court to find that Alvarado was not in custody based on a number of factors:
- He came to the interview voluntarily and was not required to arrive at any certain time; he was not threatened or told he was going to be arrested.
- His parents waited in the lobby, indicating that the interview would be fairly brief.
- He and his family were told it was "not going to be long."
- The focus of the interview was on the other perpetrator (Soto) rather than Alvarado.
- During the interview he was provided with opportunities for breaks.
- He went home with his parents after the interview.
Given these facts, the Supreme Court found support for the California trial court's decision that a "reasonable person" in Alvarado's situation would not believe himself to be in custody and that Miranda warnings were therefore not required prior to the interview.
This is not to say that a person's age is completely irrelevant in an interrogation scenario. Separate from the Miranda requirement, a statement must still be voluntarily given to comply with constitutional due-process requirements. When determining whether a statement was voluntarily given, courts turn their attention to the subjective elements of an interrogation in an effort to ascertain whether a person's will was overborne during questioning.5 Considerations of age, education level, language barrier, familiarity with the legal system, and mental disability are some of the factors indicating whether a person provided a voluntary statement.6
Juvenile status may also be important if federal or state laws provide additional rights, such as parental notification prior to questioning or heightened Miranda protections for juveniles.
The Court noted that a generalized rule such as Miranda allows for broad interpretation in deciding how to apply the rule under differing circumstances. The tests for determining whether a person is in custody or is being interrogated and must therefore receive Miranda warnings are likewise fairly broad, and for good reason; the broadness provides latitude and discretion in deciding whether law enforcement actions are reasonable, given the complex and countless variables that officers encounter when questioning suspects.
As a final note, this case once again illustrates the importance of good documentation of the circumstances surrounding a suspect interview. Providing the court with complete information about where, when, and how an interview is conducted allows the court greater ability to determine the whether the officer's actions are reasonable and comply with constitutional requirements. ■
1 Decided June 1, 2004.
2 Beckwith v. U.S., 425 U.S. 341 (1976); Oregon v. Mathiason, 429 U.S. 492 (1977).
3 Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318 (1994).
4 Thompson v. Keohane, 516 U.S. 99 (1995).
5 See Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157, and Moran v. Burbine, 475 U.S. 412.
6 Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973).