Note | Criminal Law
Confessions of a Teenage Defendant: Why a New Legal Rule
Is Necessary to Guide the Evaluation of Juvenile Confessions
by Hannah Brudney*
From Vol. 92, No. 5 (July 2019)
92 S. Cal. L. Rev. 1235 (2019)
Keywords: Criminal Law, Juvenile Confessions, Civil Rights
The cases of the “Central Park Five” and Brendan Dassey are two of the highest profile criminal cases in the past three decades. Both cases unsurprisingly captured the nation’s attention and became the subjects of several documentaries. Each case forces the public to consider how police officers could mistakenly identify and interrogate an innocent suspect, how an innocent person could feel compelled to falsely confess, and how our legal system could allow the false and coerced confession of a child to be the basis of a criminal conviction. While these two cases made national headlines, they are not unique. False confessions by juveniles are a common and even inevitable occurrence given the impact of the interrogation process on children and the inadequacies of the legal standard that currently exists to protect against juvenile false confessions.
Part I of this Note will discuss the prevalence of false confessions among juvenile suspects, and explain how juveniles’ transient developmental weaknesses make them particularly vulnerable to specific coercive interrogation techniques. Part I will also emphasize the impact that a confession has on the outcome of a defendant’s trial, thereby highlighting the weight that a false confession carries.
Part II of this Note will present the existing law governing the evaluation of the voluntariness of a confession—the procedural safeguards offered by Miranda v. Arizona and the totality of the circumstances test rooted in the concern for due process. Part II will also argue that the totality of the circumstances test is insufficient to protect juveniles because it does not give binding weight to a suspect’s age, but rather considers age among several other characteristics.
Part III of this Note will propose a new legal rule to guide the evaluation of juvenile confessions. The proposed legal rule extends and expands upon the language and holding from J.D.B. v. North Carolina, and requires that age be the primary factor in courts’ evaluations of juvenile confessions. Confessions offered by children during interrogations in which coercive techniques are employed must be presumed involuntary, given the effect that manipulative interrogation techniques have on juveniles’ likelihood to falsely confess. Moreover, given that courts often have no way of knowing the circumstances of an interrogation, confessions by all juveniles should be presumed involuntary until the prosecution can prove that no coercive interrogation techniques were used. Part III also proposes a series of policy reforms that aim to reduce the prevalence of false confessions.
*. Senior Submissions Editor, Southern California Law Review, Volume 92; J.D. 2019, University of Southern California Gould School of Law; B.A. English Literature and Psychology 2014, Columbia University. I would like to thank Professor Dan Simon for his advice and guidance, as well as the members of the Southern California Law Review for their excellent editing.