Different Standards for Miranda Warnings to Juveniles: The Appellate Division Says “No” But Doesn’t Close That Door

State of New Jersey in the Interest of M.P., 476 N.J. Super. 242 (App. Div. 2023). This magnum opus by Judge Susswein today holds that the Law Division erred in concluding that defendant, a juvenile, waived his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). The State had a “heavy burden” of proving a “knowing , intelligent, and voluntary waiver,” and the panel found that the State had not carried that burden. That decision came after a lengthy analysis of the facts and law applicable to waiver of those rights. As a result, a statement that defendant gave was not admissible at the trial of this murder case, in which defendant was alleged to have participated.

Of broader potential import, however, were two arguments made by defendant and amici that urged the Appellate Division to revolutionize Miranda law as applied to juveniles. First, they urged the Appellate Division to “adopt a new categorical rule that would prohibit police from conducting a stationhouse interrogation of a juvenile unless and until the minor is represented by an attorney.” That argument was largely based on “advances in the scientific understanding of adolescent brain development,” and “neuroscience and behavioral science research that shows juveniles are not only more impulsive and compliant than adults but also tend to lack the cognitive skills to comprehend Miranda rights.” Second, defendant and amici asked that the Appellate Division “revise the Miranda warnings administered by police in New Jersey to make them more comprehensible to adolescents.”

Judge Susswein rebuffed both of those arguments, on the ground that the Appellate Division lacked the authority “to substantially rework our State’s juvenile interrogation jurisprudence” in that fashion.. Among other things, he noted that the Supreme Court had declined to adopt “a less-expansive request for an attorney-appointment rule in State in Int. of A.S., 203 N.J. 31, 154 (2010).” Judge Susswein stated that if changes to Miranda law in New Jersey are to be made, they should be made by the Supreme Court, the Legislature, or “a committee of experts and stakeholders, providing a forum for a deliberative process.” He observed, for example, that policies in California and Washington that defendant and amici cited as persuasive, were adopted by “legislation, not judicial decisions.”

Despite that conclusion, Judge Susswein’s opinion carefully described some of the pros and cons of changing the law as defendant sought. His opinion, which is well worth reading in full, may be useful to a different body if the proposed changes in the law are brought there. Today’s case may well not be the last word on making different Miranda-related rules applicable to juveniles in New Jersey.