Washington (CNN) -- The Supreme Court offered split assessments Wednesday over the questioning in school of a 13-year-old robbery suspect, and whether the child felt free to walk away from the interrogation.
At issue is whether the unnamed juvenile was "in custody" at the time of the questioning and therefore entitled to be given his so-called "Miranda" warnings, allowing him the discretion not to answer questions.
The case is one of several this term dealing with the extent of constitutional rights for minors. In this appeal, the justices appeared divided along conservative-liberal lines.
During oral arguments, Justice Samuel Alito suggested trial judges would need great "imaginative powers" to put themselves in the mind of a 13-year-old and speculate if the suspect felt free to end the interrogation. "When you take a particular set of circumstances, and the judge would say -- if I were 13, I would not understand that I could go. However, if I were 15, I would understand I could go. Can you slice it like that?"
"Do we need either imaginative powers or empirical data to know that when a 13-year-old is brought into a room in his school, and taken out of class," countered Justice Elena Kagan, sitting next to Alito, "and threatened with custody, that that person is not going to feel free to take off and leave?"
"J.D.B." was a 13-year-old special-needs public school student in 2005. He was escorted from his seventh-grade class and taken to a conference room. There a Chapel Hill, North Carolina, police investigator -- along with an assistant principal, school resource officer and an intern -- asked the boy if he wanted to talk about some recent criminal activity in the area. The African-American boy agreed to talk. The door was closed but not locked.
After first denying any involvement, J.D.B. admitted to breaking into several neighborhood homes and stealing items, including a camera. After the confession, the police officer told the boy he did not have to answer further questions, but he continued talking and gave further incriminating statements. The adults testified the youngster never asked to cease the questioning or to leave the room.
When the 30- to 45-minute session ended, the boy was allowed to leave and catch his bus for home. Officers later that day obtained a search warrant of the house and found the stolen goods. He was again questioned.
At no time were the youth's legal guardian or parents notified, and Miranda rights were never administered. Larceny and juvenile delinquency charges were then filed, and courts subsequently allowed the confession to be admitted as evidence, concluding J.D.B. was not in custody and voluntarily talked.
The appeal focused on the school interrogation, since the high court has previously ruled underage students are subject to some restrictions on their movements in that setting.
The 1966 Supreme Court ruling in Miranda v. Arizona established clear guidelines to protect all criminal suspects from being compelled to give self-incriminating testimony. As seen on countless cop shows on TV, the warnings protect against police coercion, but also establish when a person is "in custody." Such factors as location, length and nature of the interrogation all would be factors. Weighing that, courts must make an objective determination of "how a reasonable man in the suspect's position would have understood his situation" about agreeing to talk.
But in very lively one-hour oral arguments, the justices sparred openly over how the "reasonable man" objective standard could be applied to a 13-year-old.
Barbara Blackman, representing the boy, told the court his freedom of movement was "heightened by the manner in which this officer chose to conduct this interrogation, and the expected deference to authority figures" meant the child was "taken advantage of by the manner in which this officer chose to conduct the interrogation."
Justice Antonin Scalia worried different standards might have to be applied to 13-year-olds and those four years older or younger. He also suggested a blanket Miranda warning given to every juvenile before every questioning would not be helpful.
"We don't want Miranda warnings to be given where they are unnecessary because they are only necessary to prevent coercion, and where there's no coercion, we want confessions, don't we?" he said. "It's a good thing to have the bad guys confess that they're bad guys, right?"
Both Alito and Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed concern about expanding the established Miranda rules when juveniles are involved, especially in school settings where state custody over the child would be greater.
"I guess part of my problem is it's just in some respects hard to put Miranda in the context of a 13-year-old alone," said Kennedy. "It may be that Miranda warnings -- 'You have a right to remain silent, anything you say can be used against you' -- might terrify the kid just to hear about it. I'm just wondering how the Miranda warning works here anyway. The school is in loco parentis (in place of the parent), it has obligations and privileges with respect to the student."
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was adamant. "This case has 'child' written all over it," she said "This is a middle school. This is an officer who deals only with children. I can't imagine any setting where age isn't more apparent ... I mean, just as a matter of common sense, how can you say that we're going to have the same test for this 13-year-old as we would for the 30-year-old?"
Justice Stephen Breyer said courts may consider a variety of circumstances when deciding whether a suspect fully understood his rights.
"If the judge can take into account whether he's in a wheelchair, whether he just speaks Ukrainian, whether in fact you have to swim through a pool and he doesn't know how to swim," he asked. "Why can't he take into account in a proper situation before he thinks he's in custody or not, things they both know including whether he's 8 years old or 22?"
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said officers should not be forced to speculate on a child's maturity level when deciding when to question him. "Age fundamentally changes the 'reasonable person' test," required of police, he said, "makes it complex, makes it more illogical, with no logical stopping point."
The case is J.D.B. v. North Carolina (09-11121). A ruling is expected by June.
In a separate case dealing with another key right affirmed in Miranda warnings, the justices will decide whether a poor defendant has a constitutional right to an appointed lawyer in a civil proceeding that results in his incarceration.
The appeal was heard in open session earlier Wednesday and involves Michael Turner, a South Carolina man cited for contempt for repeatedly failing to pay court-ordered child support. Turner represented himself in the hearing, and later argued he should have been provided counsel at the state's expense.
Such representation would normally be provided in criminal proceedings, dating back to the famous 1963 high court case of Gideon v. Wainwright. Some legal and civil rights groups want the justices now to create a "civil Gideon" for indigent defendants in some types of civil proceedings.
Many states and law enforcement groups argue that would flood the civil courts with the most common form of legal dispute, including immigration, customs, even simple traffic offenses that might raise the possibility of detention.
That case is Turner v. Rogers (10-10), and a decision can be expected in coming weeks.