Are you questioning a juvenile in relation to a fire? Is he in custody, necessitating Miranda warnings, or are you gathering information from a fact witness? A recent court decision discusses the potential risks presented when interviewing juveniles. Investigators need to ensure compliance with statutes/standards applicable in their jurisdiction to ensure juvenile statements are admissible. Failure to do so risks reversing any delinquency finding or criminal conviction obtained.


In United States of America v. John Doe (9th Cir. 2000) No. 99-50250, the Court of Appeals reviewed a trial adjudicating a minor delinquent for importing a controlled substance into the country. He was confined for 18 months and then placed on probation. The juvenile was entering the United States in a pickup truck as a passenger. The inspector noticed unusual features of the gas tank and directed it to a secondary inspection at 12:35 a.m. A closer examination revealed an altered gas tank. The driver and juvenile were detained, searched, and seated on benches at the checkpoint area. They were not questioned.

A drug detection dog alerted on the truck. A subsequent inspection found drugs at 2:30 a.m. Between 2:50 a.m. and 3:00 a.m., the inspectors notified the security officers. The juvenile and driver were then moved to detention cells.

At 6:30 a.m., federal special agents met with the juvenile. They obtained a telephone number for his parents. He gave them the number but advised them his parents did not speak English so they should speak to his sister. One agent left to call the sister, while the other agent continued to interview the juvenile about his personal history without complying with Miranda.

The special agent who spoke to the sister advised her that her brother was arrested for smuggling drugs. The agent did not inform the sister that the juvenile would be undergoing interrogation, nor did he inform her of his Miranda rights. The agent promised to call back.

At 6:36 a.m., the agent read the juvenile his Miranda rights. The agent read through the standardized form and asked him if he understood the rights. The juvenile indicated he did. The agent asked the juvenile to waive his rights by reading the waiver form and signing it. He read and signed the form. The juvenile made several statements indicating he knew the truck contained drugs and that he had been offered money to go to Mexico with the driver and bring the drugs back in the truck. The interrogation lasted about 15 to 20 minutes and ended at 7:00 a.m. The United States Attorney’s Office was later notified of the arrest. After fingerprinting and processing, the juvenile was booked into a juvenile facility. He was not booked into the primary facility used by federal authorities because the facility did not accept juveniles.

It was not until the next day that the juvenile was brought before a magistrate judge. The U.S. Marshals Service had in place a policy that juveniles not booked into a federal facility could be brought to the courthouse only between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. By that time, the juvenile had already been booked into the juvenile facility. Despite a request by the special agent, no exception was made for the juvenile. The magistrate did not have a hearing with the juvenile until the next day, nearly 32 hours after his arrest.

The juvenile moved to suppress his statements on the basis that they had been obtained in violation of 18 U.S.C. section 5033, the federal procedures required on arrest of a juvenile. The district court found the government violated the statute by failing to tell the parents he was going to be interviewed and that he had certain rights. Further, the district court found the juvenile was not taken before the magistrate in a timely manner as required. Nevertheless, the district court denied the motion to suppress finding that the violations did not raise to a level of due process or cause prejudice.

Title 18 U.S.C. section 5033 states:

“Custody Prior To Appearance Before Magistrate. Whenever a juvenile is taken into custody for an alleged act of juvenile delinquency the arresting officer shall immediately advise such juvenile of his legal rights, in language comprehensible to a juvenile, and shall immediately notify the Attorney General and juvenile’s parents, guardian or custodian of such custody. The arresting officer shall also notify the parents, guardian or custodian of the rights of the juvenile and of the nature of the alleged offense.

“The juvenile shall be taken before a magistrate forthwith. In no event shall the juvenile be detained for longer than a reasonable period of time before being brought before a magistrate.”

The juvenile argued the government violated every aspect of the above noted section. The government failed to immediately notify him of his rights, failed to immediately notify his parents, failed to inform his parents that he had Miranda rights, and failed to bring him before a magistrate forthwith.

The court had to determine whether the juvenile was arrested and taken into custody to determine application of section 5033. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held once drugs were found and the juvenile was placed into a locked cell, no reasonable person would have believed he was free to leave. Therefore, he was placed into custody no later than 3:00 a.m.

The juvenile was not read his Miranda rights until 6:36 a.m. Hence, he had been in custody for 31/2 hours. That delay violated the statute.

The government did not attempt to notify the juvenile’s parents until 31/2 hours after he was placed into custody. The statute identifies custody as the triggering event requiring notification, not interrogation. The government’s delay in attempting to contact the parents also violated the statute.

The court found that the parents were not notified of his Miranda rights. Lastly, 311/2 hours had elapsed between the time the juvenile was taken under custody and the time he was brought before a magistrate. The court found no justification for the delay of bringing the juvenile before a magistrate. Further, the policy in place by the U.S. Marshal violated the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act.

The trial court had found that although there were violations of the statute, the minor’s confession did not have to be suppressed. The Court of Appeals disagreed. The Court of Appeals stated, “Juveniles need parental involvement during interrogation. The requirement that parents be advised of their arrested child’s rights is surely not for the purpose of imparting general information in the abstract. Congress obviously intended that parents be informed of their children’s rights so that they can assist their children in a meaningful way. The court held that if the juvenile or his parents request to communicate and confer with each other prior to questioning, such a request may not be unreasonably refused.” The juvenile’s sister who had been contacted testified that if she had been advised of her brother’s Miranda rights, she would have told him to remain silent until they knew what was going on and found out all the legalities of where he stood. That would have included her parents’ meeting with a public defender or other legal representative. Hence, the Court found that the government interfered with the juvenile’s right to remain silent. He was prejudiced because his statements were the sole source of proof of his knowledge of the drugs.


If you are a federal firefighter, special agent, or federal investigator, and you are questioning a juvenile in a custodial setting where Miranda applies, compliance with Title 18 U.S.C. section 5033 is mandatory. Failure to comply with section 5033 requirements can lead to disastrous results, as noted above.

All your hard investigative work can be wasted if the juvenile delinquency finding is overturned. Fire department personnel and government agency investigators employed by local or state agencies must know what the law in their state is on questioning juveniles.

In California, those requirements are discussed in the Welfare and Institution Code. Section 627.5 of the Welfare and Institution Code codifies the advice to be given a minor as to constitutional rights. That section follows standard Miranda warnings. Those warnings are required to be given when a police officer takes a minor before a probation officer. The police officer who takes the minor into temporary custody does so if the minor committed a misdemeanor and is habitually disobedient or truant or has committed a felony. The police officer that has a minor in custody may not interrogate him unless warnings are given and waived. Notice to parents is also critical to ensure the minor’s waiver is effective.

If you are a federal employee conducting a custodial interrogation of a juvenile, compliance with Miranda and parental notification issues is critical. As the court noted above, parents need to be informed and have involvement in the interrogation of their child. If the parent requests to talk to the child prior to questioning, such a request should not be unreasonably refused.


Appropriate interviewing of juveniles ensures obtained statements are admissible in a juvenile or adult proceeding. Further, compliance with applicable state statutes and regulations promotes public confidence in the integrity of fire officials and law enforcement personnel. At a time when some are skeptical of the criminal justice system, it is better to err on the side of caution than to have the results of a diligent investigation lost for failure to comply with procedural safeguards adopted to protect juveniles.

PETER A. LYNCH is a member of the national law firm of Cozen and O’Connor practicing in its San Diego regional office. He is the legal advisor to the San Diego County Wide Arson Task Force and a legal columnist for the California Conference of Arson Investigators.


Fire investigation is dangerous. Moreover, the culture that surrounds firefighting and fire investigation sometimes minimizes safety concerns. New and seasoned investigators need to ensure safety concerns are addressed at every fire scene. Recent accidents illustrate the need for caution at all fire scenes.


Illinois Fire Captain Steve Wilmont, a 15-year veteran, died August 9, 2000, after hospitalization from a fall during a cause and origin arson investigation.1 The captain had joined the arson investigation team earlier in the year. He had been a frontline firefighter during his 15-year career. A later investigation determined the fire to be incendiary (arson).

Another common hazard at a fire scene is a floor collapse. That condition recently caused the tragic death of Firefighter Rickey L. Davis.2 He reportedly was functioning as the nozzleman in a house fire on April 20, 2000, when he fell through the floor into the basement.

Roof collapse is another hidden danger that can maim or kill. Two Houston firefighters were killed on February 14, 2000, by a roof collapse at a McDonald’s restaurant.3 Murder charges have been filed against three adults and a juvenile for setting the fire to cover up a burglary.


Several excellent reference sources are available for the new investigator and the seasoned professional. One is “Fire Arson Scene Evidence: A Guide for Public Safety Personnel,” available through the National Institute of Justice.4

This guide discusses the role of first responders, evaluating the scene, documenting the scene, and processing evidence at the scene investigation. Section A of the guide discusses the need for scene safety. It is critical that steps be taken to identify and remove or mitigate safety hazards that may further threaten victims, bystanders, and public safety personnel. They must be careful to avoid injuries to themselves and others. Specifically, the scene should be evaluated for safety hazards to include structural collapse; smoke; and electrical, chemical, or biological health risks. First responders should establish safety and hazards zones and communicate those hazards to other personnel arriving at the scene. Moreover, appropriate tools and personal protective equipment appropriate to the task are critical.

A more detailed discussion of safety is available in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations.5

Chapter 10 contains a detailed discussion of safety at a fire scene. As noted, fire scene examination should not be undertaken alone. However, it is very common for fire scenes to be inspected alone, especially by private cause and origin investigators. It is recommended that two individuals be present to ensure that assistance is available if the investigator becomes trapped or injured. If that is not possible, it is critical that a responsible person be informed of where the investigator will be and when he can be reasonably expected to return.

Proper safety equipment including safety shoes, boots, gloves, safety helmet, and protective clothing should be worn at all times while investigating a fire scene. Other equipment includes flashlights, portable lighting, safety glasses or goggles, filter mask or SCBA, and lifelines.

Fire scenes pose serious injury risks at all times. Complacency should not be condoned.

It is critical for the fire investigator to ensure that the structure is stable. Examination of roofs, ceilings, and load-bearing walls is essential to avoid a collapse. They should be assessed before entering the structure. Hidden dangers in the forms of holes in floors and standing water can affect the structure’s integrity. Note the deaths described above as evidence of the need to ensure the structure is safe before investigating the fire scene.

Check electric, gas, and other utilities to minimize the possibility of electrical shock or release of gases. Most fire scenes present electrical hazards that can cause serious injury or death from shocks or burns. Confirm appropriate tag or lockout of electrical meters and other power-supply equipment before hands-on inspection of that equipment.

Chapter 10 notes all wires should be considered energized or hot until appropriately disconnected. Electrical wires that fell to the ground should also be considered hazards until checked. Do not allow ladders to contact overhead electrical lines. Do not depend on rubber footwear as an insulator. Be aware that multiple electrical services can provide power to a structure. Standing in water that may be energized by different electrical systems can be lethal.

The fire scene atmosphere can include toxic or dangerous gases. Moreover, buildings older than 20 years may contain asbestos.


“Safety first, not last” is a motto to “live” by. Failure to ensure the scene is safe to investigate endangers not only you but also others involved in the investigation. Sergeant Phil Esterhaus of the TV program Hill Street Blues said, “And, hey-let’s be careful out there, people.” That’s good advice for keeping yourself and others safe.


  1. See National Fallen Firefighters’ Memorial Database: Wilmont, Steve; for additional details.
  2. Ibid., Davis, Rickey L.
  3. Ibid., Mayo, Lewis III; Smith, Kimberly.
  4. The handbook may be downloaded at the following link:
  5. The guide may be ordered at the NFPA’s Web site at

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