A person needs to be an adult to sign a legally enforceable contract. You can’t even legally commit to a gym membership until you’re 18 because the law assumes that children are too young to understand the full implications of most legal arrangements and commit themselves to a binding future. And yet, the courts frequently say that in the criminal context, young children can fully understand and waive their constitutional Miranda rights – their right to “remain silent.” By legally waiving their Miranda rights, children are permitted to commit themselves to a world of criminal liability that haunts them for the rest of their lives.
Children are far more likely than adults to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. A shocking 38% of exonerations for crimes allegedly committed by people under the age of 18 involve false confessions – and those are only the cases where exonerations were proven. The reality is that children are far more impressionable and easier to manipulate than adults, so it’s just easier for law enforcement to get them to falsely confess. Everyone is supposed to be protected from false confessions by understanding the Miranda rights, but given how poorly this system actually works, it’s worth analyzing. Of course you’ve heard the Miranda rights recited in a movie or on television. Before the police can interrogate a suspect, they must say: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”
A Los Angeles court recently held that the special needs ten-year-old pictured above could understand those words, waive his Miranda rights, and confess to murder. Really?! Joseph H. is a boy with ADHD, a learning disorder, and low-average intelligence. He had been prenatally exposed to many illegal drugs, including meth and heroin. At ten, Joseph H. confessed to shooting and killing his father, who was a neo-Nazi leader, a drug addict, and a horribly violent abuser. A California Court of Appeal concluded that, despite his age and limitations, Joseph H. was fully able to understand his Miranda rights and waive them, thus his confession could be used against him to support his murder conviction.
So what do the Miranda rights words mean and are they really simple enough that a mentally challenged ten-year-old can understand them sufficiently to legally waive them? Before you even get to the question of whether a person can understand the words and meaning, there’s the basic issue of processing it all together — having sufficient working memory to retain all of the parts while putting together the meaning. Anyone who has ever tried to give a child a multi-stepped task using familiar words and concepts knows that this is no easy feat for children (try asking a ten-year-old to go upstairs, grab his homework, sneakers, and lunch money, and see how long it takes and what he brings back). Then, the person must actually understand all of the words used. The child must know what an attorney is and understand how an attorney could help him. And, even then, there are a ton of ambiguities about the statements in the Miranda rights, questions that courts have litigated: How do you ask for a lawyer? When do you get the lawyer? Anything said can count against you? What if you start talking and then change your mind? Finally, the child must be able to weigh the pros and cons and make an informed decision about how her future will be impacted, should she choose to answer the authority figure’s questions. Again, really?!
The Supreme Court has never decided whether children below a certain age are unable to give up their Miranda rights and answer police officers’ questions without having an adult present protecting the child’s interest. It’s time.