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Court gives police more leeway to question teen crime suspects

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Police need not always warn a teenage suspect of his rights before formally questioning him, the Supreme Court said yesterday.

The 5-4 ruling gives police more leeway to question suspects without giving them the Miranda warnings, and it says a suspect's youth is not reason to treat him with more caution.

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The decision upholds the second-degree murder conviction of a Los Angeles County man who was 17 at the time of the crime. Michael Alvarado was charged with being an accessory to the 1995 murder of a truck driver at a shopping mall in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Fe Springs. He was convicted based on tape-recorded comments he made during an interview with a Los Angeles County sheriff's detective.

At issue in the Supreme Court was whether those comments should have been excluded from his trial because Alvarado had not been warned of his rights.

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In the past, the court has ruled that suspects who are "in custody" must be told, before being questioned, that they have rights to remain silent and to see a lawyer. People are said to be "in custody" when they are in the control of the police and do not feel free to leave.

But deciding whether a suspect was in custody often comes down to a judgment call.

Yesterday, the high court agreed with state judges in California who said Alvarado was not in custody when he was questioned at a police station.

Det. Cheryl Comstock, who was investigating the killing, had contacted Alvarado's parents and said she needed to speak with him. They took him out of school and to the station house. There, according to Alvarado's account, police told his parents they would have to wait in the lobby while the detective questioned him for two hours.

Initially, the youth denied knowing about the shooting. Later, he admitted he was standing outside the passenger side of the truck when, to his surprise, Paul Soto pulled a gun and shot the driver because he had refused to give up his keys. Alvarado admitted he helped to hide the gun afterward.

Soto and Alvarado were tried together, and both were convicted. Soto was sentenced to life in prison; Alvarado got 15 years to life.

Two years ago, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Alvarado's conviction on the grounds that his interview with the detective should have been excluded from the trial.

Because Alvarado was in custody of the police, he should have been warned of his rights, the three-judge panel held. "A criminal defendant's age has long been a relevant factor. ... We do not believe that a reasonable 17-year-old in Alvarado's position would have felt 'at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave,'" wrote Judge Richard Cudahy, quoting an earlier Supreme Court ruling.

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California prosecutors appealed, were joined by Bush administration lawyers who said an interrogation such as this is essentially voluntary and therefore outside the scope of the 1966 Miranda ruling, which requires police questioners to warn suspects that they have a right to remain silent and to have an attorney.

The Supreme Court agreed yesterday.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the case was a close call but said the 9th Circuit judges should have deferred to the California judges who initially upheld Alvarado's conviction.

Alvarado was not arrested and taken to the station house, Kennedy noted. And he was not placed under arrest when he arrived. At the end of the interview, he was allowed to go home with his parents.

All of this is "consistent with an interrogation environment in which a reasonable person would have felt free to terminate the interview and leave," Kennedy wrote. "A suspect's age or experience is [not] relevant to the Miranda custody analysis."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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