Court Decisions Regarding Juvenile Interrogations/Confession Admissibility

Written By: Joseph P. Buckley
Apr 18, 2023

As noted in our Investigator Tip, The Courts: Unacceptable Investigator Interrogation Behaviors, over the last 20 years we have published numerous court decisions on interrogation issues in an effort to keep our audience up to date with the courts’ views as to acceptable and unacceptable interrogation behaviors.

In this Tip we have reviewed 40 court decisions regarding the interrogation of juveniles and the associated issues that the courts consider with respect to confession admissibility, many of which offer guidance to investigators as to what the courts consider to be acceptable / unacceptable investigator behaviors when questioning juvenile subjects.

Please note: While these court decisions offer a representative sample of what the courts generally view as acceptable and unacceptable investigator interrogation behaviors when questioning juveniles, there are undoubtedly exceptions, so every investigator should be sure to review court decisions in their jurisdiction.

10-year-old can make voluntary waiver of rights and can understand the wrongfulness
of his acts

In People v. Joseph H. the Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division 2, California, upheld the lower court's decision that a 10-year-old understood the wrongfulness of his acts (shooting his father in the head) "despite the statutory presumption of incapacity" and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights. From the Court of Appeal's decision:

"After being taken to the police station, the minor was interviewed by Detective Hopewell, a detective assigned to the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Unit, whose role was to interview Joseph and his siblings. Prior to admonishing Joseph of his Miranda rights or interviewing him about the shooting itself, the detective asked him questions pursuant to a Gladys R. Questionnaire, designed to determine if an arrestee under the age of 14 understands the wrongfulness of his or her actions, within the meaning of section 26. Following that questionnaire, the detective asked Joseph if stealing candy from a store without paying for it was right or wrong; Joseph replied it was wrong. She then asked Joseph to give her an example of doing something right and doing something wrong. Joseph responded that doing wrong things could hurt people, while it was good to care, and to help people. After asking him for an example of something that he would do that would be right, she asked Joseph to give an example of doing something that was wrong, to which Joseph replied, "Well, I shot my dad." Shortly thereafter, the detective
advised Joseph pursuant to Miranda and proceeded to question him about the shooting.

The minor refers to the videotape and transcript of the interview as support for the
assertion that Joseph fundamentally misunderstood the nature of Miranda and his right to
be free of coercive confessions. He argues that his equivocal response when the detective
asked if understood what she was saying, his body language, and his hesitation showed
he did not understand what was being explained. We disagree.

Here, the minor points to his age, and the fact that he suffers from ADHD and other
mental disabilities, to argue that he was susceptible to suggestion. The minor relies on the
testimony of Dr. Geffner's opinion that "[H]aving borderline intellectual functioning and
other cognitive deficits can make a person more easily suggestible." This may be true, but
Dr. Geffner's suggestion that it was "possible" he was more easily suggestible, is not
evidence that Joseph was, in fact, suggestible or confused. The detective repeatedly asked
Joseph if he understood what she was explaining about his rights, and when he
demonstrated misunderstanding, she provided additional explanation; Joseph's responses
indicated he understood. Nothing in the record supports the premise that he was confused
or suggestible.

The minor also argues that his communication deficits made it "self-evident that he
would have had trouble effectively communicating his reservations and preserving his
rights." The videotape of the interview shows he had no trouble communicating, aside
from needing explanation of a few terms. In this respect, the detective was careful to
follow up the explanation of his rights with questions to insure he understood what she
was explaining, so the assertion he had difficulty communicating his reservations is not
supported by the evidence.

Further, the record does not support the minor's assertion that his hesitation, confusion,
and misunderstanding of the full scope of what it meant to "waive" his rights, showed
involuntariness. To the contrary, the video shows he felt guilty for what he had done.
Absent coercive conduct by police, and despite his young age, his ADHD, and low-
average intelligence, the finding that Joseph voluntarily waived his rights, guaranteed by
the Fifth Amendment, is supported by the record.

Pursuant to section 26, a minor under the age of 14 is presumed to be incapable of
committing a crime. Thus, a finding of capacity is a prerequisite to an adjudication of
wardship for a minor under 14... The presumption of incapacity may be rebutted by the
production of "clear proof" that the minor appreciated the wrongfulness of the conduct
when it was committed.... "Clear proof" means clear and convincing evidence.

In determining capacity pursuant to section 26, the juvenile court must consider the
child's age, experience, and understanding.... A minor's knowledge of his act's
wrongfulness may be inferred from the circumstances, such as the method of its
commission or its concealment.

Here, Dr. Salter testified that Joseph knew the difference between right from wrong. The
court heard the testimony of Drs. Geffner and Salter, and read all the reports and
statements that were admitted into evidence, including Joseph's own statements that he
understood right from wrong, and understood he would be punished when he did
something wrong. The court also considered Joseph's age and the circumstances of the
crime, including Joseph's planning of the event while lying in bed (when he decided to

end the "father-son thing") and the fact he hid the gun under his bed to avoid getting
caught. These factors support the trial court's finding.

13-year old’s statement "Could I have an attorney? Because that's not me" was an
Unequivocal and Unambiguous Invocation of his Rights

In People v. Art T. the Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 7, California, ruled that a 13-year-old boy's statement--"Could I have an attorney? Because that's not me"--made during the course of a custodial interrogation after watching a video of a shooting was an unequivocal and unambiguous invocation of his rights. From the court's opinion:

"In this case, the detectives knew at the time of the interrogation that Art was 13 and an
eighth grade student in middle school. While neither the juvenile court nor this court has
had the benefit of viewing the videotape for the purpose of considering the circumstances
of Art's statements to the officers in considering the motion to suppress, we find that Art's
age of 13 and middle school level of education, combined with his repeated requests for
his mother, would have made his lack of maturity and sophistication objectively apparent
to a reasonable officer. In this context, Art's statement after viewing the video of the
shooting, "Could I have an attorney? Because that's not me," was an unequivocal request
for an attorney."

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Court Decisions re Juvenile Interrgoations (298.822 KB)
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