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Fifth Amendment Due Process: Juvenile Defendants

Due process is essential to the American legal system, especially when it comes to criminal trials. Cases involving minors present unique legal questions - which the Supreme Court has strived to answer for hundreds of years.

If your child faces criminal charges, it's essential to seek the help of an attorney right away. Protect their constitutional rights by finding a juvenile criminal defense attorney near you.

What the Fifth Amendment Says

"No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

What It Means for Juvenile Defendants

United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

All fifty states and the District of Columbia provide for dealing with juvenile offenders outside the criminal system for adult offenders.1 Their juvenile justice systems apply both to offenses that would be criminal if committed by an adult and to delinquent behavior not recognizable under laws dealing with adults, such as habitual truancy, deportment endangering the morals or health of the juvenile or others, or disobedience making the juvenile uncontrollable by his parents.

The reforms of the early part of the 20th century provided not only for segregating juveniles from adult offenders in the adjudication, detention, and correctional facilities, but they also dispensed with the substantive and procedural rules surrounding criminal trials which were mandated by due process.

Justification for this abandonment of constitutional guarantees was offered by describing juvenile courts as civil not criminal and as not dispensing criminal punishment, and offering the theory that the state was acting as parens patriae ("parent of the people") for the juvenile offender and was in no sense his adversary.2

Disillusionment with the results of juvenile reforms coupled with a judicial emphasis on the constitutional protection of the accused led in the 1960s to a substantial restriction of these elements of juvenile jurisprudence. After tracing in much detail this history of juvenile courts, the Court held in In re Gault3 that the application of due process to juvenile proceedings would not endanger the good intentions vested in the system nor diminish the features of the system which were deemed desirable—emphasis upon rehabilitation rather than punishment, a measure of informality, avoidance of the stigma of a criminal conviction, the low visibility of the process – but that the consequences of the absence of due process standards made their application necessary.4

Thus, the Court in Gault required that notice of charges be given in time for the juvenile to prepare a defense, required a hearing in which the juvenile could be represented by retained or appointed counsel, required observance of the rights of confrontation and cross-examination, and required that the juvenile be protected against self-incrimination.5 It did not pass upon the right of appeal or the failure to make transcripts of hearings.

Earlier, the Court had held that before a juvenile could be waived to an adult court for trial, there had to be a hearing and findings of reasons, a result based on statutory interpretation but apparently constitutionalized in Gault.6 Subsequently, the Court held that the essentials of due process and fair treatment required that a juvenile could be adjudged delinquent only on evidence beyond a reasonable doubt when the offense charged would be a crime if committed by an adult,7 but still later the Court held that jury trials were not constitutionally required in juvenile trials.8

Do Minors Have Miranda Rights?

On a few occasions, the Court has considered whether rights accorded to adults during the investigation of crime are to be accorded juveniles. In one such case, the Court ruled that a juvenile undergoing custodial interrogation by police had not invoked Miranda right to remain silent by requesting permission to consult with his probation officer, since a probation officer could not be equated with an attorney, but indicated as well that a juvenile's waiver of Miranda rights was to be evaluated under the same totality-of-the-circumstances approach applicable to adults.

That approach "permits—indeed it mandates—inquiry into all the circumstances surrounding the interrogation . . . includ[ing] evaluation of the juvenile's age, experience, education, background, and intelligence, and into whether he has the capacity to understand the warnings given him."9

Do Minors Have Rights Against Search and Seizure?

In another case, the Court ruled that, although the Fourth Amendment applies to searches of students by public school authorities, neither the warrant requirement nor the probable cause standard is appropriate.10 Instead, a simple reasonableness standard governs all searches of students' persons and effects by school authorities.11

The Court ruled in Schall v. Martin12 that preventive detention of juveniles does not offend due process when it serves the legitimate state purpose of protecting society and the juvenile from potential consequences of pretrial crime, when the terms of confinement serve those legitimate purposes and are nonpunitive, and when procedures provide sufficient protection against erroneous and unnecessary detentions. A statute authorizing pretrial detention of accused juvenile delinquents on a finding of a serious risk that the juvenile would commit crimes prior to trial, providing for expedited hearings (the maximum possible detention was 17 days), and guaranteeing a formal, adversarial probable cause hearing within that period, was found to satisfy these requirements.

Related Resources


  1. For analysis of the state laws as well as application of constitutional principles to juveniles, see Samuel M. Davis, Rights of Juveniles: The Juvenile Justice System (2d ed. 2006).
  2. In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 12–29 (1967).
  3. 387 U.S. 1 (1967).
  4. "Ultimately, however, we confront the reality of that portion of the juvenile court process with which we deal in this case. A boy is charged with misconduct. The boy is committed to an institution where he may be restrained of liberty for years. It is of no constitutional consequence—and of limited practical meaning—that the institution to which he is committed is called an Industrial School. The fact of the matter is that, however euphemistic the title, a 'receiving home' or an 'industrial school' for juveniles is an institution of confinement in which the child is incarcerated for a greater or lesser time. His world becomes 'a building with whitewashed walls, regimented routine and institutional hours . . . .' Instead of mother and father and sisters and brothers and friends and classmates, his world is peopled by guards, custodians, state employees, and 'delinquents' confined with him for anything from waywardness to rape and homicide. In view of this, it would be extraordinary if our Constitution did not require the procedural regularity and the exercise of care implied in the phrase 'due process.' Under our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court." 387 U.S. at 27–28.
  5. 387 U.S. at 31–35. Justice Harlan concurred in part and dissented in part, id. at 65, agreeing on the applicability of due process but disagreeing with the standards of the Court. Justice Stewart dissented wholly, arguing that the application of procedures developed for adversary criminal proceedings to juvenile proceedings would endanger their objectives and contending that the decision was a backward step toward undoing the reforms instituted in the past. Id. at 78.
  6. Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966), noted on this point in In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 30–31 (1967).
  7. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970). Chief Justice Burger and Justice Stewart dissented, following essentially the Stewart reasoning in Gault: "The Court's opinion today rests entirely on the assumption that all juvenile proceedings are 'criminal prosecutions,' hence subject to constitutional limitation. . . . What the juvenile court systems need is not more but less of the trappings of legal procedure and judicial formalism; the juvenile system requires breathing room and flexibility in order to survive, if it can survive the repeated assaults from this Court." Id. at 375, 376. Justice Black dissented because he did not think the reasonable doubt standard a constitutional requirement at all. Id. at 377.
  8. McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971). No opinion was concurred in by a majority of the Justices. Justice Blackmun's opinion of the Court, which was joined by Chief Justice Burger and Justices Stewart and White, reasoned that a juvenile proceeding was not a criminal prosecution within the terms of the Sixth Amendment so that jury trials were not automatically required. Instead, the prior cases had proceeded on a fundamental fairness approach, and in that regard, a jury was not a necessary component of fair factfinding and its use would have serious repercussions on the rehabilitative and protection functions of the juvenile court. Justice White also submitted a brief concurrence emphasizing the differences between adult criminal trials and juvenile adjudications. Id. at 551. Justice Brennan concurred in one case and dissented in another because in his view open proceedings would operate to protect juveniles from oppression in much the same way as a jury would. Id. at 553. Justice Harlan concurred because he did not believe jury trials were constitutionally mandated in state courts. Id. at 557. Justices Douglas, Black, and Marshall dissented. Id. at 557.
  9. Fare v. Michael C., 442 U.S. 707, 725 (1979).
  10. New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985) (upholding the search of a student's purse to determine whether the student possessed cigarettes in violation of school rule; evidence of drug activity held admissible in a prosecution under the juvenile laws). In Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364 (2009), the Court found unreasonable a strip search of a 13-year-old girl suspected of possessing ibuprofen. See Fourth Amendment, Public Schools, supra.
  11. This single rule, the Court explained, will permit school authorities to regulate their conduct according to the dictates of reason and common sense. 469 U.S. at 343. Rejecting the suggestion of dissenting Justice Stevens, the Court was unwilling to adopt a standard under which the legality of a search is dependent upon a judge's evaluation of the relative importance of various school rules. 469 U.S. at 342 n.9.
  12. 467 U.S. 253 (1984).
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