Constitutional Rights in Juvenile Cases

A look at the constitutional due process rights of youth in juvenile court cases.

By , Attorney · Northwestern University School of Law
Updated by Kelly Martin, Attorney · Golden Gate University School of Law

Minors in juvenile court delinquency proceedings have some but not all of the constitutional rights that adults have in regular criminal court cases. In fact, before the 1960s, juveniles had few constitutional rights at all. But as juvenile court proceedings have become more formal, courts and state legislators have strengthened rights for juveniles.

While many constitutional rights afforded to adults do apply in juvenile delinquency proceedings, some important ones don't.

(To learn more about the unique nature of juvenile cases, including the age cut-off for juvenile vs. adult court, see Nolo's article Juvenile Court: An Overview.)

Constitutional Rights That Apply in Juvenile Delinquency Cases

Below is a summary of the rights that apply to juveniles in delinquency proceedings under the U.S. Constitution. States can provide additional protections, so a juvenile's rights might be more expansive in some states.

Police Need Probable Cause to Search

Just as in cases involving adults, police officers who are investigating juveniles must comply with the Fourth Amendment. So, they need probable cause to search and arrest a minor suspected of breaking the law.

However, the rules are less strict when school personnel search a student or their belongings. In that situation, the school needs only "reasonable suspicion" of wrongdoing rather than probable cause. The school can turn over whatever they find to the police, and it can be used as evidence in delinquency proceedings.

Privilege Against Self-Incrimination and Miranda Warnings

People in juvenile court proceedings have a right to assert their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. So, just like adults, minors can't be forced to provide evidence or testify in any case against them.

Relatedly, when the police question minors who are in custody, they must provide Miranda warnings: Among other things, the police must inform a juvenile that they have the right to remain silent and have the right to an attorney before and during questioning. These warnings protect the right against self-incrimination.

If the police ignore a juvenile's request to remain silent or consult an attorney, anything the minor says to the police after that will likely be inadmissible in juvenile court, unless an exception applies.

When minors want to invoke their rights, they should clearly state that they want to remain silent and that they want a lawyer. When a person asserts one or both of these rights, the police have to stop questioning. When a juvenile instead asks to speak to a parent instead of an attorney, this sometimes means that the police can't question the minor, but not necessarily. Whether the police must stop questioning in that situation depends on the circumstances. (For more information, see Miranda Rights for Students.)

(J.B.D. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011); Fare v. Michael C., 442 U.S. 707, 725 (1979); People v. Lessie, 47 Cal.4th 1152 (Cal. 2010); State v. Saldierna, 817 S.E.2d 174 (N.C. 2018); State v. Gibson, 718 P.2d 759 (Or. 1986).)

Right to Counsel

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that minors have the right to an attorney in juvenile proceedings. If a minor can't afford an attorney, they have the right to be represented by a state-appointed attorney. (In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967).)

Right to Notice of the Charges

The U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that the state has to give juveniles notice of the delinquency charges they face. The notice is usually in the form of a charging document, which is often called a "petition" in juvenile cases. (In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967).)

Right to Confront and Cross-Examine Witnesses

Even though a juvenile adjudication hearing is not a formal criminal trial, a minor has the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. This means they can question (through an attorney) the people that the prosecutor calls to testify. (In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967).)

Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that if a juvenile faces possible incarceration or adjudication as a delinquent, the state must prove the charges "beyond a reasonable doubt." (In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970).)

Constitutional Rights That Don't Apply in Juvenile Delinquency Cases

Although juveniles have many of the same rights that adults have when facing criminal allegations, juvenile court proceedings don't have some key protections that are available in adult criminal court. Here are the main ones:

No Right to Bail

Juveniles don't have a federal constitutional right to seek bail. (And although adults don't necessarily have a constitutional right to bail, in most cases, they're entitled to it, and have a constitutional right that it not be excessive).

That said, bail isn't commonly a problem for juveniles, because many are released to their parents or guardians before arraignment in juvenile court. Generally, courts must legally justify a decision to keep a juvenile in detention before the minor has had their day in court. And some states have laws that allow bail for juveniles.

No (or Limited) Right to a Jury Trial

Even though the right to a jury is considered a key constitutional right in criminal trials, the Supreme Court has held that juvenile delinquency proceedings don't require a jury. So, most states don't allow jury trials in delinquency cases. In those states, the judge decides whether the juvenile violated the law. The few states that do allow jury trials often limit them to certain types of juvenile cases (typically serious cases involving a potentially long period of incarceration). (See Do Juveniles Have a Right to Trial by Jury?)

Have More Questions About Juvenile Proceedings?

For more information about juvenile court, the rights of minors in juvenile proceedings, and how to help if you are the parent of a minor in trouble with the law, get The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System, by Paul Bergman and Sara Berman (Nolo). And if you need a lawyer experienced with the juvenile justice system, you can turn to Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory to find an attorney near you.

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