The opinion of the court was delivered by: Verniero, J.
On Certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
In this appeal, we consider the voluntariness of a confession by defendant, a juvenile, in a custodial setting. Defendant confessed to committing certain offenses after waiving his constitutional rights in the presence of his mother and deciding that he did not want her present in the interrogation room. At the outset of the interrogation, the parent agreed she should not be present. At the time, the juvenile was almost seventeen years of age and was familiar with the criminal justice system because of fifteen prior arrests. Defendant's mother wanted to rejoin her son well into the questioning, but the police did not accede to that request.
The trial court and Appellate Division concluded that the juvenile's confession was voluntary based on the totality of circumstances, including the juvenile's age at the time of his statement, his clear desire to speak outside the presence of his mother, his mother's initial agreement to be absent, and his fair treatment by police. We granted defendant's petition for certification, 160 N.J. 90 (1999), and now affirm.
We hold that courts should consider the totality of circumstances when reviewing the admissibility of confessions by juveniles in custody. Moreover, courts should consider the absence of a parent or legal guardian from the interrogation area as a highly significant fact when determining whether the State has demonstrated that a juvenile's waiver of rights was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. In the specific circumstances of this case, according enhanced weight to the absence of the parent from the interrogation, we conclude that the State has carried its burden.
We note that a special circumstance exists when a juvenile is under the age of fourteen. We will apply a different standard in that context, namely, the adult's absence will render the young offender's statement inadmissible as a matter of law, unless the parent or legal guardian is truly unavailable. Regardless of the juvenile's age, law enforcement officers must use their best efforts to locate the adult before beginning the interrogation and should account for those efforts to the trial court's satisfaction.
In the early morning hours of February 27, 1995, at approximately 12:30 a.m., the Willingboro home of seventy-year-old John Oldham and his seventy-three-year-old wife, Sarah Oldham, was burglarized. There were two perpetrators, armed with knives, who covered their faces with a hood and ski-type mask. After beating John Oldham and cutting both his throat and Sarah Oldham's, the assailants ran from the house carrying Mrs. Oldham's purse. Although seriously injured, the Oldhams survived the attack.
Within an hour, police officers arrived at the scene. The officers observed two sets of footprints in the light snow outside of the Oldham residence. The footprints led the officers to defendant's house, a short distance away. At approximately 1:30 a.m., one of the officers knocked on the door of defendant's home. His mother, Michelle Robinson, answered. The officer explained to Mrs. Robinson that the footprints led them to her front porch. Mrs. Robinson informed the officer that defendant was the last person who had come into the house that evening about fifteen minutes after midnight. She agreed to take both defendant and her other son, who were then present in the house, to the Willingboro Police Station. At the time, defendant was within two weeks of his seventeenth birthday. He had also been arrested on fifteen prior occasions on unrelated charges.
Shortly before 4:00 a.m., with Mrs. Robinson's consent, the officers transported defendant and his brother from the police station to the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office. According to the police, Detective Jay Brown informed defendant of his constitutional rights as required by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966). Defendant's mother was present in the same room. At about 4:20 a.m., defendant, who said he had slept until about 1:00 p.m. the day before, indicated that he understood his rights and signed the Miranda card. Defendant's mother signed the same Miranda card as a witness. Detective Brown thereafter informed Mrs. Robinson that she had the right to be present while he interviewed her son.
After discussing the matter with defendant, Mrs. Robinson and defendant decided that she should leave the room during questioning. After Mrs. Robinson departed, Detective Brown, joined by a second detective, proceeded to interview defendant for approximately forty to fifty minutes. Initially, defendant denied any involvement in the crimes.
After a break, during which defendant was not handcuffed and remained unguarded in the interview room, the detectives resumed questioning for another forty to fifty minutes. During this second session, they confronted defendant with the fact that footprints led them from the house of the victims to his house. In response, defendant stated that he had acted only as a lookout for his twenty-two-year-old cousin and another person, still denying a central role in the robbery and assaults.
The detectives took another ten- to twenty-minute break. After that second break, the detectives informed defendant that they had found two sets of footprints, not three, prompting him to admit that he and his cousin had committed the offenses. The detectives then took another break, during which they escorted defendant to the men's room and gave him a drink of water.
The questioning resumed and defendant provided more details about the night in question, after which the detectives took yet another break. After that fourth break, defendant provided a taped confession beginning at approximately 7:39 a.m. and concluding at 8:11 a.m. Sometime before defendant confessed, his mother asked to see him. She also said to one of the officers, "I think they [her sons] should have a lawyer." The officer replied that he did not think that was necessary, stating "[w]e're just trying to get to the truth." Mrs. Robinson did not see defendant until after he completed his taped statement.
The trial court conducted a four-day Miranda hearing, during which defendant and Mrs. Robinson disagreed with the police version of the facts, and disagreed with each other. Defendant testified that he did not see his mother at the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office until after he taped his statement. In contrast, Mrs. Robinson testified that she was brought into the room with her son, witnessed the signing of the Miranda card, and then left. The State and defendant disputed other facts as well.
After weighing the credibility of all witnesses, the trial court found as a fact that Detective Brown advised defendant of his Miranda rights with his mother present in the same room; that they both understood and signed the Miranda card; that they both were aware of Mrs. Robinson's right to be present during the questioning of defendant; that defendant requested that his mother not be present during the interrogation; and that Mrs. Robinson initially agreed to be absent. The court also settled a factual dispute regarding whether Mrs. Robinson asked to re-enter the interrogation area. The court found that the parent did, in fact, make that request, notwithstanding the contrary testimony of the officer. For purposes of this appeal, we accept the trial court's findings. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 470-71 (1999).
The trial court also concluded that the State had met its burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile's statement was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. It based that conclusion on the totality of circumstances surrounding the arrest and interrogation. Specifically, the court was persuaded by the juvenile's advanced age, together with his prior experience with law enforcement, and by the fact that defendant himself chose to have his mother out of the room during questioning. The trial court found that under those circumstances the subsequent wishes of defendant's mother "were not controlling . . . given the age [and] the experience of this particular juvenile." The "bottom line," the trial court noted, was that "[defendant's] will was not overborne by law enforcement."
Reserving his right to appeal, defendant pled guilty, pursuant to a plea agreement, to second-degree conspiracy in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2; first-degree robbery in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1a(1); and second-degree burglary in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:18-2a(1). Consistent with the plea arrangement, the trial court sentenced defendant to a twenty-year term of imprisonment with an eight-year parole disqualifier for the armed robbery; a concurrent term of ten years with a five-year parole disqualifier for the conspiracy; and a concurrent term of ten years with a five-year parole disqualifier for the burglary.
Before the Appellate Division, defendant argued that his rights were violated when his mother was denied access to him during the interrogation, and that the trial court should have merged the conspiracy conviction with the burglary and robbery counts. In an unreported decision, the Appellate Division agreed with the trial court that, considering all factors, defendant's confession was voluntary and thus admissible. The panel specifically noted the following factors as support for its conclusion:
the fact that defendant was just two weeks shy of his seventeenth birthday; defendant had extensive prior encounters with law enforcement; had been giving [sic] his Miranda rights on several of those encounters; defendant had waived those rights on February 27, 1995, in the presence of his mother; defendant had agreed with his mother that she would not be present during his interrogation; and defendant had not attempted to either invoke his right to counsel or expressed a desire to speak to his mother at any time during the interrogation. Further, the interrogation, which occurred in spurts of forty to fifty minute periods, was neither grueling nor strenuous for defendant. Moreover, defendant never challenged the truth of his confession nor claimed that his investigators used tactics that overbore his will.
The Appellate Division agreed with defendant that his conviction for conspiracy should have been merged with his convictions for either robbery or burglary. Consistent with defendant's petition for certification, the voluntariness of his confession is the only issue before us.
The privilege against self-incrimination, as set forth in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, is one of the most important protections of the criminal law. U.S. Const. amend. V; State v. Hartley, 103 N.J. 252, 262 (1986). We do not have a similar provision in our State Constitution; however, "the privilege itself `is firmly established as part of the common law of New Jersey and has been incorporated into our Rules of Evidence.'" Hartley, 103 N.J. at 260 (quoting In re Martin, 90 N.J. 295, 331 (1982)).
Although a suspect is always free to waive the privilege and confess to committing crimes, that waiver must never be the product of police coercion. Ibid. Accordingly, for a confession to be admissible as evidence, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect's waiver was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary in light of all the circumstances. State v. Burris, 145 N.J. 509, 534 (1996); State v. Kelly, 61 N.J. 283, 294 (1972).
At the root of the inquiry is whether a suspect's will has been overborne by police conduct. In determining whether a suspect's confession is the product of free will, courts traditionally assess the totality of circumstances surrounding the arrest and interrogation, including such factors as "the suspect's age, education and intelligence, advice as to constitutional rights, length of detention, whether the questioning was repeated and prolonged in nature and whether physical punishment or mental exhaustion was involved." State v. Miller, 76 N.J. 392, 402 (1978). Additionally, "[a] suspect's previous encounters with the law has been mentioned as [a] relevant factor." Ibid. We reaffirm those factors as germane to an evaluation of the admissibility of either adult or juvenile confessions.
The requirement of voluntariness applies equally to adult and juvenile confessions. See N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-40 ("All rights guaranteed to criminal defendants by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this State . . . shall be applicable to cases arising under the [New Jersey Code of Juvenile Justice]"); see also In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 13, 87 S. Ct. 1428, 1436, 18 L. Ed. 2d ...