Volume 60

Coming of Age in the Eyes of the Law: The Conflict Between Miranda, J.D.B., and Puberty

by David M. Garavito & Mary Kate Koch

 Everyone knows that going through puberty is associated with a multitude of changes: physical, mental, hormonal, etc. Fewer people know that when and how fast one goes through puberty can also be associated with changes to one’s legal rights. The Supreme Court of the United States held, in the landmark case of J.D.B. v. North Carolina, that there were many “commonsense conclusions” that could be drawn from how a child’s age would affect their interactions with law enforcement. In that case, the Court was deciding whether age should affect whether a child was considered “in custody” of the police, granting them the legal rights associated with custodial interrogation (also known as Miranda rights). Surprisingly, however, despite the majority opinion discussing the objective nature of age, and “commonsense conclusions” derived therefrom, the Court did not fully incorporate age into the custody analysis. The Court held that the age only matters in a legal sense either if the officer(s) interacting with that per-son knows that the person is a child or if the age of the child would be objectively apparent to a reasonable officer. In other words, unless the officer(s) knows that a suspect is a child, the influence of this objective fact about a person depends solely on if that person looks like a child to a “reasonable officer.” Although some people find this shortcoming harmless, the Court has inadvertently opened the door for discrimination, both intentional and unintentional. The vast amount of biological and psychological research on puberty has found that when one starts puberty and how fast one goes through puberty depends on multiple factors, including socioeconomic status, race, and sex. Further, additional research on how children are perceived by others shows that children of color are perceived as more mature and more responsible for their actions. In this Article, we provide a brief history of custody and custodial interrogation, including the case of J.D.B., and we summarize existing puberty research to emphasize the serious-ness of limiting the legal importance of age based on subjective perceptions. 

Further, we provide a solution to this problem in the hope of preventing this shortcoming from producing similar gray areas in other legal realms—a process that has already begun. 

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