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SJC Rules the Interested Adult Rule Applies to Seventeen Year Olds

cell-phone-959697-mIn a recent decision, Commonwealth v. Smith, the Supreme Judicial Court extended the “interested adult” rule applies to seventeen-year-old defendants. Under the United States Constitution and the Massachusetts Declaration of rights, the police must provide a suspect with Miranda warnings prior to questioning the suspect if the suspect is (1) in custody – meaning a reasonable person in his or her shoes would not feel free to leave; and (2) the police know or should know that the questioning is likely to elicit an incriminating response. The police must warn the suspect that:

  • s/he has the right to remain silent and refuse to answer questions;
  • Anything s/he says may be used him/her in a court of law;
  • s/he has the right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police and to have an attorney present during questioning; and
  • If s/he cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed before any questioning if s/he desires

If the suspect then chooses to waive these rights and make a statement to the police, that statement may be admissible against the suspect in the event s/he is charged and prosecuted. When it comes to juvenile suspects, however, the police must take an additional step before such a waiver is considered to be valid. Specifically, the SJC has stated that the “circumstances and techniques of custodial interrogation which pass constitutional muster when applied to a normal adult” may not be “constitutionally tolerable” when applied to a juvenile. Thus, while juveniles may make an effective waiver of their Miranda rights, “special caution” must be taken in determining the validity of the waiver. The SJC has recognized that there are unique problems that arise with respect to waiver when the suspect is a juvenile, and therefore Massachusetts has adopted an “interested adult” rule regarding confessions. Under this rule, the Commonwealth must show that a parent or interested adult was present, understood the warnings, and had the opportunity to explain the rights to the juvenile so that s/he understands the significance of the waiver.

In Smith, the defendant was arrested as a suspect in the shooting death of the victim. At the time of the shooting, he was seventeen years and five months old. The defendant waived his Miranda rights and made a statement to the police. He then litigated a motion to suppress the statement, which was denied. On appeal, the defendant argued that the motion to suppress should have been allowed because he should have been afforded an opportunity to speak with an interested adult prior to making the waiver. The SJC disagreed with the defendant’s argument, stating that the interested adult rule, as “defined it to date,” only applies only to those “who have not yet reached the age of seventeen.” The Court specifically rejected the defendant’s argument that the passage of An Act Expanding Juvenile Jurisdiction, “which amended an array of statutory provisions to treat seventeen year olds as juveniles,” “entitle[d] him to the protection of the interested adult rule.” In the Court’s view, that “argument fail[ed] for two reasons.” First, the SJC stated that the Act applies prospectively only, meaning that it only applies to cases that arise after the passage of the Act. The SJC went on to state that in light of this prospective application, the propriety of the defendant’s Miranda waiver in 2007 is not affected by the passage of the 2013 Act. The SJC also stated that Act does not itself modify the scope of the interested adult rule, as the interested adult rule is a rule of common law, and is not constitutionally mandated or legislatively enacted. As such, the SJC concluded that the Act “would not have entitled the defendant to the protection of the interested adult rule even had it taken effect before the defendant was interviewed by police.”

The SJC went on to state, however, that although the Act does not itself modify the interested adult rule, the Court would take “this opportunity [pursuant to the Court’s superintendence power] to extend the rule, on a prospective basis, to seventeen year old defendants. Like the interested adult rule itself, this modification is not constitutionally or statutorily required. Nevertheless, in the wake of the 2013 [A]ct, seventeen year olds will be treated as juveniles in a myriad of contexts…. Considerations of consistency and ease of application thus support the extension of our rule, too, to seventeen year olds.” This “modification of the scope of the interested adult rule will apply only to interrogations conducted after the issuance of the [decision] in this case.” Therefore, even though the Court found that the validity of Smith’s waiver was not undermined by the lack of opportunity to consult with an interested adult, the police will now be required to provide all suspects under the age of eighteen with a meaningful opportunity to consult with an interested adult prior to waiving his or her Miranda rights in order for the waiver to be considered valid.

Attorney Daniel Cappetta is an experienced juvenile defense attorney who understands the critical issues that arise when a juvenile is a suspect or charged in a criminal case. He is well versed in the differences between juvenile defense and adult defense, and knows how to use all of the rules and added protections afforded to juveniles to his clients’ advantage. Call him for a free consultation today.