Juveniles and Miranda: What really goes on in the interrogation room?

Cleary and Vidal (2016) examined how Miranda warnings are presented in interrogations of juvenile suspects. The researchers’ innovative spin on this topic was that they looked at recordings of actual police interrogations from a variety of jurisdictions. Among other things, when they reviewed the recordings, the researchers noted the manner in which the Miranda warnings were delivered and how the police assessed the juveniles’ comprehension of the warnings.

The authors provided some demographic characteristics of the juveniles. Specifically, the sample was ethnically diverse with 57% Black and 25% white. Most of the youth were males between the ages of 13 to 17 years old and the average age was 15 years old. Additionally, half of the youths were under arrest at the time of the interrogations.

An obvious question the researchers addressed was, how often did the youths waive their Miranda rights. Although the police were seen on video administering the rights in most of the cases, the researchers noted in some cases it was clear, by what the officer said, that the youth were informed of their rights before the filming began. That said, regardless of when they were presented with their rights, 90% of the juvenile suspects waived their rights.

Using only the instances where the Miranda warnings were presented on tape, Cleary and Vidal (2016) found that in 43% of those cases, the warnings were presented without delay and before the police posed any questions to the juvenile suspect. In 39% of the cases, the warnings were presented after the police had asked the suspect standard booking questions. In 18% of the cases, the police presented the warnings in one of the following ways: a) after they attempted to build rapport with the suspect, b) in a manner that minimized the importance of the warnings, c) after they made it seem that it was in the youth’s best interest to waive their Miranda rights or d) as if the youth had no choice but to sign the waiver. Cleary and Vidal noted prior research has documented that youth are often not as able as adults to understand the Miranda warnings. Consequently, Cleary and Vidal pointed out that “immediate delivery [of Miranda warnings] is no better than a delay if delivery is not accompanied by additional measures to ensure youths’ understanding.” p. 108

The researchers also examined the way the police introduced the Miranda warnings. In 84% of the cases, the police introduced the Miranda warnings in a manner that made it clear they were obligated to do so and introduced the warnings in a “neutral manner.” p. 108 However, in the remaining cases, the officers either trivialized or emphasized the importance of the warnings. As Cleary and Vidal (2016) pointed out, “from a developmental perspective, as with Miranda timing, we do not know whether neutral versus ‘coached’ delivery influences youths’ Miranda comprehension or their waiver decisions.” p.108 The authors urged other researchers to look into this issue.

Just as how the warnings were introduced was relevant, so was the way they were presented. In 50% of the cases, the warnings were presented both verbally and in writing. In nearly 36% of the cases, the warnings were presented only verbally. In the remaining 14% of the cases, the police presented the warnings in writing and instructed the youth to read them. In some instances, the police instructed the youth to read the warnings out loud and in others, the youths were not asked to read them aloud.

According to Cleary and Vidal (2016), both the American Bar Association (ABA) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recommended police use simplified Miranda warnings with juveniles. In the current study, 68% of the time, the police did not follow this recommendation. Consequently, Cleary and Vidal urged police to “move toward juvenile Miranda practices that are both developmentally appropriate and empirically informed.” p. 112

The researchers also looked at what grade reading level was required for a reader to understand the warnings. Using the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test, the researchers determined that, on average, the warnings were written at a level that could be understood by a typical seventh grader. However, as the authors correctly pointed out, given the particulars of an individual juvenile suspect, a grade level analysis may have “little practical significance.” p. 111

As with all research, this study had limitations. For example, the sample size was small. However, the authors detailed the efforts employed to obtain the largest possible sample. Additionally, the authors noted the agencies determined which interrogations would be included in the study. Thus, the authors had no way of knowing if a particular interrogation was conducted in a manner typically used by that officer or if the way that the officer conducted the interrogation was typical of how other officers in the same agency conducted interrogations. Despite these limitations, the importance of the novel research method that Cleary and Vidal (2016) used should not be minimized. In summary, the authors noted their findings demonstrated “interrogating officers generally administer Miranda well within the confines of the law but may capitalize, intentionally or unintentionally, on youths’ developmental vulnerabilities or equivocations when it comes to constitutionally protected interrogation rights.” p. 112

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