WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court wrangled Monday over whether police must take extra care when questioning young people about crimes.
The case, part of the court's broad review this year of the familiar warning that begins "You have the right to remain silent," was prelude to the court's consideration next fall of another youth issue: the constitutionality of executing underage killers.
In the questioning case, the court is considering special rules for interrogations of juveniles.
Some justices seemed to have misgivings about an officer's questioning of a California teenager for more than two hours at a police station while forcing the boy's parents to wait outside.
Police contend they did not have to tell the 17-year-old murder suspect his rights because he was not in custody and could have left the station.
Several justices wondered aloud if the teen, who had never been to a police station for questioning before, would have known he was free to go.
"He's a minor. He has to go where his parents tell him to," Justice Antonin Scalia said.
Justice Stephen Breyer said young people are expected to follow their parents' directions.
Michael Alvarado is serving a sentence of 15-years to life in prison for his part in a 1995 murder at a shopping mall in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. He was accused of assisting in an attempted carjacking that ended in the driver's death.
John Elwood, a Bush administration lawyer, urged justices to keep age considerations out of police questionings. "We have to have a rule that's workable for police officers," he said.
The case is among four being considered at the high court this year that will clarify the landmark 1966 Miranda v. Arizona ruling, which required officers to warn people who are in custody that they have a right to remain silent and to see a lawyer. The court ruled in the first of the four in January, reminding police that before they try to get confessions from criminal suspects facing formal charges they must first tell them they have a right to see a lawyer.
"Isn't age relevant?" Justice John Paul Stevens asked during Monday's argument.
Scalia said it might be hard to draw a line, with officers having to make subjective decisions about a young person's experience and whether they would know they were in custody.
Tara Allen, Alvarado's attorney, said juvenile status "is not a state of mind. It's a class this court has recognized."
The other Miranda cases involve how much leeway police have when they mistakenly or deliberately fail to tell suspects their rights.