Kids, Cops, and Confessions: Inside the Interrogation Room
California Lawyer

Kids, Cops, and Confessions: Inside the Interrogation Room

June 2013

New York University Press, 340 pages, $35, hardcover

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The truth may set you free, but in the criminal justice arena it will bury you. That's the message of Kids, Cops, and Confessions, the product of Barry C. Feld's study of closed case files of juveniles charged with felonies.

The author, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, studied 307 files in four Minnesota counties: two urban (Hennepin and Ramsey in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolis), and two both suburban and rural (Anoka and Dakota). Each file contained a transcript or tape of an interrogation; a Miranda form and no confession; or a police report that indicated the juvenile had invoked his or her rights. Minnesota law requires that custodial police interrogations be recorded.

Feld found that Miranda warnings have limited application in juvenile cases because the overwhelming majority of subjects - 93 percent - waive their rights and talk to police. One reason is that young offenders often simply don't understand the Miranda warnings. "Kids who come into juvenile court are not frequently the high-performance students," one public defender says.

Even those who do understand their rights usually can't analyze the consequences of "anything you say can be used against you in a court of law."

"I think they're under the perception that things are going to go better for them if they cooperate, that they're probably going to get out of jail," says another PD. "I don't think they realize how serious giving a statement is and the consequences it has ... and how that's going to get turned around and used against them."

Those consequences are much the same as they are for adult offenders. According to Feld, youths who waived their rights were more likely to be convicted of a felony than those who invoked them. They were less likely to have charges dismissed, and less likely to have felony charges reduced to misdemeanors.

Police and prosecutors, not surprisingly, describe confessions as "the nail in the coffin." One defense lawyer says, "They definitely don't get a break for singing. They definitely don't seem to charge them any less than they could because they spoke." Both sides know that once an accused offender has confessed or made admissions, he's vitiated his attorney's ability to provide an effective defense.

Juvenile cases also present a greater danger of false confessions. The chief inducement to a false confession seems to be the length of interrogation. One study cited by the author showed that, of 103 youths wrongfully convicted, one-third gave false confessions. "Developmental psychologists and legal analysts attribute juveniles' overrepresentation among false confessors to developmental immaturity, diminished competence relative to adults, and increased susceptibility to interrogation techniques."

There are some significant distinctions between Feld's Minnesota offenders and any similar California group. One is that for nearly 20 years the recording of police custodial interrogations has been mandatory in Minnesota (State v. Scales, 518 N.W. 2d 587 (Minn. 1994).) Another difference is the ethnic breakdown of Minnesota offenders. The overwhelming majority, (66 percent to 91 percent, depending on the county) are white. Other racial categories listed are black, Native American, and Asian.

The author recommends that during police interrogation any juvenile age 15 or younger should be accompanied by a professional advocate, preferably an attorney. Otherwise, any waiver of the right to remain silent and the right to counsel should be held ineffective per se. Courts should examine defendants' statements for reliability, instead of stopping their inquiry at whether or not a Miranda waiver was signed. There should be a limit on the duration of questioning of juveniles. And, certainly, police should make a Scales recording of every interrogation, which would aid both the prosecution and defense.

Of course, juvenile offenders aren't going to read Professor Feld's book. If they did, they'd learn that no young accused criminal is a match for the trained and experienced detective or police officer in the interrogation room. In Minnesota, just as in California, once you say anything other than "I don't want to talk" or "I want a lawyer," you're toast.

Ben Pesta is a white-collar and criminal defense lawyer in Beverly Hills.

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