Miranda Rights: Do children understand what it means to waive constitutional rights?

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 2.55.05 PM“You have the right to remain silent.”

If you’ve ever watched a crime drama, you’re familiar with this key element of our justice system – freedom from self-incrimination.  In 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark case Miranda v Arizona.  The Court established that the 5th Amendment provides all people in police custody protection against self-incrimination.

This means that before police attempt to interrogate an individual in custody, they must inform him that he does not have to say anything, has the right to an attorney  and will be provided one if he cannot afford one.  If the individual decides to talk to police anyway, he must affirmatively waive his Miranda Rights.

It’s a simple yet powerful commitment to the ideal of fairness in our criminal justice system.

Since the Miranda Warning plays such an important role in our society and pervades popular culture through books, television, and movies, we may believe that this right needs no explanation.

Not true, according to research published in the American Psychology Association’s flagship journal.  This analysis of more than 9 million arrests in the U.S. found that 10% of these arrests were “compromised by problems with Miranda Warnings.” In other words, in one year – nearly 1 million people arrested did not understand their rights to silence and/or the presence of an attorney. Of that number, more than one-third were children.

The study concluded that part of the confusion results from the wording of the Miranda Warning.  The researcher compared comprehension of the warning between groups of pre-trial defendants and college undergraduates.  In both groups, more than one-third of the participants falsely believed their silence could be used against them in court.  The study also found that some defendants falsely believed that even if an attorney was requested, they still had to answer police questions until the attorney arrived.

The problem is more acute among children. In fact, some Miranda warnings for children are even longer than those for adults, an average of 100 words longer.  Some versions for children required a college-education to comprehend.  Authorities may over-complicate these warnings in an effort to more fully explain rights to children but the effect is further diminished understanding.

Empirical studies show that children generally don’t understand their constitutional rights well enough to waive them.  Most children age 14 and under, even some between the ages of 15-17, do not understand the content and meaning of the Miranda Warning as well as the average adult offender. 

Researchers have also found that even some parents may not understand Miranda Rights and, therefore, may encourage their children to talk to police without an attorney. Many parents mistakenly believe that cooperating fully with police means waiving these rights, and by doing so, their child will be viewed more positively by law enforcement and the judge.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also recognized there is heightened risk for false confession from a child being interviewed by police.

In the 2012 Memorandum of Understanding with the Shelby County Juvenile Court the DOJ has required all Court probation officers to use age appropriate methods and language to explain Miranda rights to children.  These probation officers must also obtain meaningful assurances from the child that he understands all of his rights.

The DOJ investigation was limited to the confines of the Shelby County Juvenile Court, so the new requirements do not currently apply to Memphis police officers or Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies.  The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, however, recommends that when a child is given Miranda Rights, law enforcement should use simplified warnings in the presence of an attorney. In 2010, the American Bar Association passed a resolution urging lawmakers to simplify Miranda Warnings for children.

A Shelby County Juvenile Court magistrate recently suppressed the confession of a 14-year old Memphis boy because of issues involving the Miranda Warning.  You can read the story in the Commercial Appeal (story behind paywall.)

Relevant Sites: 


Example of a simplified Miranda warning for children

The DOJ report and agreement about the Shelby County Juvenile Court