AGAIN, THE NATION'S courts have shown that U.S. law is not totally hip to the fact that youngsters are different from adults. Aren't any appeals judges parents?
By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court last week reinstated the murder conviction of a California teenager who argued that the incriminating statements he made at a police station should not have been part of the trial because he had not been advised of his right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present.
Officers are obliged to give people the so-called Miranda warnings only if they are officially in police custody; it is assumed that a reasonable person would know whether he was in custody or not. When Los Angeles sheriffs took 17-year-old Michael Alvarado without his parents into a small room at the station and talked with him for two hours, intimating that they had incriminating evidence against him and drawing out a confession, Mr. Alvarado was in fact not in custody, an appeals court ruled. He could have left the room at any time.
But how reasonable is it that a kid would walk away from a cadre of officers in their own stationhouse? How many teenagers would ask, "Am I in custody"?
It would take a lot of willpower even for someone older than 21, whose complex reasoning and judgment abilities are fully matured, to do such a thing.
"Fair-minded jurists could disagree over whether Alvarado was in custody," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion declining to overturn a state appeals court decision.
Fair-minded observers must be forgiven for thinking the question a bit hard for someone who isn't legally allowed to decide much else for himself.
The Supreme Court has not treated age as a mitigating factor in earlier Miranda rulings - it has not come up. But the court has considered it in plenty of other rulings, not to mention the precedents set in standard law and the prevailing opinion in the court of common sense. After all, few 17-year-olds can sign legal documents, vote or leave school without a permission slip.
Officers and prosecutors got a pass with this decision, but the smart move would be for them to tell the next kid his rights. And let his parents help him decide what to do.