WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court clashed yesterday over whether police must take extra care when questioning young people about crimes, narrowly siding with officers in their interrogation of a 17-year-old murder suspect in California.
The case is one of four that justices are using this year to clarify police responsibilities in using the familiar Miranda warning that begins, ''You have the right to remain silent."
Yesterday's decision was a limited victory for law enforcement.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority, said the court has never said that police must make special concessions to younger suspects as part of the requirements in the 1966 Miranda v. Arizona ruling.
But the decision left open the door for future challenges of questioning of young people.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in a separate opinion, said that there may be cases in which age is a factor.
Michael Alvarado, then 17, had been questioned for more than two hours at a police station while his parents were forced to wait outside.
Police contend they did not have to tell Alvarado his rights because he was not in custody and could have left the station.
In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said that ordinary common sense is all that is required to know that Alvarado was under police control and would not have understood that he could walk out of the interview.
''A reasonable person would not have thought he was free simply to pick up and leave in the middle of the interrogation," Breyer wrote on behalf of himself and the three other liberal-leaning justices: John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
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.
His case was a prelude to the court's consideration this fall of another youth issue: the constitutionality of executing underage killers.
In another case, the court refused yesterday to consider a libel case that asked if business executives like those in recent corporate scandals are a type of ''public figure" entitled to less privacy under the Constitution.
Justices rejected the appeal of a California newspaper that had been ordered to pay $2.25 million to a major stockholder in the now-defunct Santa Barbara Savings and Loan.
Beverly Hills businessman Leonard M. Ross accused the Santa Barbara News-Press of libeling him in 1988 and 1989 stories that said he was investigated by federal agencies.
Ross alleged the stories improperly linked him to a former partner who was convicted of investor fraud.
A lower court said that Ross was a private figure, who had to prove only that the newspaper acted negligently to receive compensatory damages.
The newspaper argued that Ross, and other corporate leaders, should be considered public figures who in order to receive damages in libel lawsuits must show that journalists acted with actual malice in their reporting.