When you are charged with a crime, anything you say can and may be used against you in court. As most people are aware, the police must inform a person arrested for a crime of this fact, prior to questioning. The reading of the Miranda Warning—named for the landmark 1966 Supreme Court Case Miranda v. Arizona—also includes notification of the right to legal counsel and the right to remain silent: both direct provisions of the 5th amendment, which upholds Due Process of Law and protects the against self-incrimination.
A fundamental tenet of American criminal justice is that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty; thus, the state must prove each element of a crime or crimes against a person beyond a reasonable doubt. In such a system, confessions and guilty pleas are an integral part of the process. However, in order to be constitutional, a confession must be voluntary—not the product of threat, force, or coercion.
Many criminal cases involve confessions, which may include any statements adverse to the defendant’s interest. More narrowly defined, a confession may even be an admission of all facts necessary to the conviction of a crime. Often a confession is an important part of the state’s evidence against a defendant. Although confessions and other indicia of remorse may result in a person receiving favorable consideration by the court when it comes to sentencing, the manner in which a confession is obtained—especially the confession of a minor—should be closely examined.
Numerous studies have shown that juveniles may make “false admissions” more than three times as often as adults (an astounding 38% versus 11%) as recently reported in this article. According to the study, many confessions were made either to protect others or due to a belief that a confession would lessen their punishment. A majority of the study’s participants “reported experiencing high-pressure techniques when questioned by police officers” and interrogations lasting longer that two hours. Recently, the prosecutors in Memphis convinced the juvenile court judge to release a 17-year-old juvenile who had been jailed for 64 days for first degree murder. The juvenile insists that the police pressured him into saying he was the getaway driver in an October 4, 2013 murder. The State agreed the charges should be dropped. (Read the Tennessean’s report on that case here.)
The State of Tennessee has invested a great deal of time and money—primarily through its school systems—to educate children about bullying, defined as “unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” It is difficult to imagine a greater “perceived power imbalance” than police officers interrogating a minor in custody without legal representation. If the statistics cited in the aforementioned study and report discussed above are even close to accurate, the State should reallocate some resources to defending children charged with crimes.