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State ex rel Q.N.

March 31, 2004

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, IN THE INTEREST OF Q.N., A JUVENILE.


On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

VERNIERO, J., writing for a majority of the Court.

The issue in this appeal is whether the police violated the rules governing juvenile confessions set forth in State v. Presha, 163 N.J. 304 (2000).

On January 17, 2002, R.N., upon being advised by police that her twelve-year-old son, Q.N., was suspected of having assaulted three young girls, agreed to an interview at police headquarters the next day. At headquarters, R.N. and Q.N. were escorted into an interview room (Room One). That room was adjacent to another room (Room Two) and a wall with a one-way mirror separated the two rooms. The detective conducting the interview then read from a preprinted form containing six lines advising R.N. and Q.N. of their rights as required by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966). The detective paused after each line, had both R.N. and Q.N. initial each line, and had them both sign the form, thereby waiving their rights.

The detective then proceeded to interview Q.N.. Q.N. responded to some questions but not others, crying whenever the detective broached the subject of the alleged sexual assault. Twice R.N. instructed Q.N. to answer the detective's questions, simultaneously telling Q.N. that she believed he had committed the alleged acts. Less than five minutes into the interview, and noting Q.N.'s hesitation in answering some questions, the detective asked Q.N. if he was willing to discuss the matter outside the presence of his mother, to which he agreed. The detective asked R.N. if she was willing to allow the interview to proceed without her being present, to which R.N. consented, saying that she would go outside and have a cigarette. The detective instructed R.N. that she could not go outside, but that she could go into the adjacent room and monitor the interview from there. She was told that if she had any questions or wanted to stop the interview, she could tap on the glass. Q.N. did not know that his mother was in Room Two and was not told that she would be available to him after she left the interview room.

Upon returning to Room One, the officer resumed the interview, telling Q.N. that he wanted to talk about one of the alleged victims. At that point, Q.N. stated: "I did it." Q.N. went on to admit how he specifically assaulted the girls. At trial, the detective testified that during the interview he used terms like "private areas" and that he did not raise his voice, other than to ensure that R.N. could hear him in the next room. R.N. never knocked on the glass or otherwise indicate that she had a question or wanted to stop the interview. The detective then brought R.N. back into Room One for the purpose of reviewing the questions, this time with a tape recorder. The detective set up the recording equipment, repeated the Miranda warnings, and once again R.N. and Q.N. waived their rights.

On February 5, 2002, the detective filed a complaint against Q.N. alleging acts that, if committed by an adult, would constitute sexual assault in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C: 14-2b. Q.N. filed a motion to suppress the confession. R.N. waived her right and Q.N.'s right to appear at the suppression hearing. Citing Presha, supra, the trial court granted Q.N.'s motion to suppress as a matter of law because R.N. was not present during all aspects of the interrogation. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court in an unreported decision.

The Supreme Court granted the State's motion for leave to appeal.

HELD: The State has carried its burden of demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that Q.N.'s waiver of rights was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary under the totality of circumstances.

1. When reviewing the admissibility of confessions by juveniles in custody, the courts should consider the totality of circumstances. If the juvenile is under the age of fourteen, the confession must be suppressed as a matter of law, except where the parent or legal guardian is unwilling to be present during the interrogation or is "truly unavailable." That is the standard established in Presha. Moreover, interrogations conducted outside the presence of the adult must conform to "the highest standards of due process and fundamental fairness." Presha, Id., at 317. (Pp. 7-8)

2. We reject the State's contention that Q.N.'s mother was "present" during the unrecorded interrogation because of her location in Room Two. Presha requires the adult to be located physically within the same room or immediate area in which the police are conducting the interrogation. That, however, does not end the interrogation. There are two exceptions. First, where the adult is "truly unavailable," which does not apply here. Second, where the adult is unwilling to attend the interrogation, including the situation where the adult voluntarily absences him or herself from the interrogation. We conclude in this case that R.N.'s voluntary absence from the unrecorded interrogation falls within the reasonable contemplation of what we intended as an exception to Presha's bright-line requirement. There is nothing in the record before us to suggest that R.N.'s absence was anything but knowing and voluntary. It would behoove police officers, however, in future cases, to refrain from suggesting that the parent or legal guardian depart the interrogation area. Furthermore, there is no indication that the detective subjected Q.N. to a lengthy interrogation or treated him unfairly as measured under existing standards. In addition, R.N. was present during the critical stage when Miranda warnings were issued, and in fact she took an active role in directing her son to "answer the officer's questions." Therefore, in balancing the totality of circumstances, and giving special weight to the parent's eventual absence from the interrogation, we are satisfied that the State has carried its burden of demonstrating that Q.N.'s statements were the product of free will. This conclusion is not altered by the fact that the detective failed to inform Q.N. that his mother was in an adjoining room and available to meet with him at his request. Although we trust that in the future the police will so inform juveniles in similar situations. (Pp. 8-17)

3. The fact that the police suggested that the parent leave the interrogation area, and the failure of the police to inform the juvenile of the parent's availability during the unrecorded interrogation, did not defeat the voluntariness of Q.N.'s statements under the particular circumstances of this case. We reach that ultimate conclusion based on the numerous factors supporting admissibility. The are: the brief duration of the interrogation; the time of day in which it took place, the fact that Q.N. showed no sign of exhaustion or fatigue; the fact that only one officer was involved, that he did not raise his voice at any stage of questioning; and that he used age-appropriate language to avoid confusing Q.N.; and the critical fact that R.N. was present for the reading of Q.N.'s Miranda rights and thus was in a position to assure that her son had understood and intelligently had waived those rights. (Pp. 17-18)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for vacation of its suppression order and resumption of proceedings consistent with this opinion.

JUSTICE WALLACE filed a separate, DISSENTING opinion, in which JUSTICE LONG joins, stating that, under the totality of the circumstances test, and in particular considering the juvenile's age, the initiation of the waiver request by the police, and the fact that the juvenile and the parent were not informed that each could separately revoke the waiver at any time, the State has not met its burden under Presha.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LAVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, and ALBIN join in JUSTICE VERNIERO's opinion. JUSTICE WALLACE filed a separate dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICE LONG joins.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Verniero

Argued January 6, 2004

This case implicates the rules governing juvenile confessions set forth in State v. Presha, 163 N.J. 304 (2000).

The courts below concluded that the police had violated those rules when interviewing the juvenile in this case, requiring suppression of his statements. We disagree and reverse.

I.

We derive our summary of facts from proofs presented at the suppression hearing conducted by the trial court. On January 17, 2002, a detective from a municipal police department in Gloucester County contacted R.N., the mother of Q.N. The police suspected Q.N., a juvenile who was then age twelve, of sexually assaulting three young girls. The detective informed R.N. of the nature of the allegations against her son and arranged to interview Q.N. at the police department the next day.

As scheduled, R.N. brought her son to the municipal building at about 2:00 p.m. on January 18, 2002. The detective escorted them to an interview room (Room One) that shared a common wall with another room (Room Two). The common wall contained a one-way, mirrored window that allowed a person located in Room Two to look through the glass and monitor events in Room One without a suspect in that room knowing that he or she was being observed. Room One is the room that the police commonly used for taped interviews.

The detective cautioned R.N. to "please pay attention" in the event that she wanted to invoke her son's constitutional rights. The detective then read a six-sentence warning from a preprinted form as required by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966). Following his standard practice, the detective paused after each sentence, asking Q.N. and R.N. if they understood the right that he had just read to them, and having each of them place his or her initials ...


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