Taking Back Juvenile Confessions


The limited capacity of juveniles to make good decisions on their own—based on centuries of common sense and empirically supported in recent decades by abundant scientific research—informs almost every field of legal doctrine. Recent criminal justice reforms have grounded enhanced protections for youth at punishment and as criminal suspects on their limited cognitive abilities and heightened vulnerability. One area of criminal procedure doctrine lags behind this legal, scientific, and social consensus. Despite historical recognition of the need for special protections for interrogated youth, current law regarding the waiver of the rights to silence and to counsel at interrogation predominantly treats juvenile suspects like adults. As a result, courts regularly admit statements by juveniles that empirical research consistently concludes are not the result of knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waivers of constitutional rights. This not only under enforces their rights, but also raises the risk of wrongful convictions.

This Article considers whether interrogation law should correct course by incorporating a rule akin to contract law’s centuries-old infancy doctrine, which permits juveniles to void a contract and be relieved of agreements that they may not have fully understood or that were ill-advised. Permitting individuals to retract uncounseled Miranda waivers elicited by law enforcement while they were juveniles would, like the infancy doctrine, protect juveniles from both crafty adults as well as their own immaturity and vulnerability. This is especially important for decisions made under stressful conditions, such as custodial interrogation by law enforcement, that exacerbate juveniles’ cognitive impairments and vulnerabilities. The rule would bring interrogation law into alignment with the longstanding recognition of juveniles’ limited decisionmaking capacities, as well as modern developmental science and Supreme Court criminal justice jurisprudence premised on the idea that juveniles require enhanced protections. While retractable Miranda waivers would come with law enforcement costs, they would ensure greater respect for juvenile suspects’ dignity while maintaining their autonomy to make informed decisions about their rights.

About the Author

Associate Professor of Law, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.

By uclalaw