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'Miranda' Warning Needed in School Drug Case, Court Rules

A high school student's statements to an assistant principal about giving prescription pills to other students had to be suppressed in a criminal proceeding because the student had not been given a Miranda warning, Kentucky's highest court has ruled.

The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the student was in custody when he was questioned by the assistant principal in the presence of a sheriff's deputy who served as the school resource officer. Thus, he should have been given the familiar warnings from the U.S. Supreme Court's 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona about the right to remain silent, the right to counsel, and that any statements he made could be used against him.

The student, a juvenile identified in court papers as N.C., made several incriminating statements to the assistant principal about possessing hydrocodone pills and giving two of them to another student. "I did something stupid," the student said.

The assistant principal explained that the student had violated school rules and would be disciplined. (He was eventually expelled.)

The school resource officer, meanwhile, told N.C. that he had also violated state drug laws and would be charged in juvenile court. The student was charged with felony possession and dispensing of a controlled substance. After a juvenile trial court refused to suppress his statements, N.C. entered a conditional guilty plea and was sentenced to 45 days in jail.

The student's appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court argued that the admission of his statements to the assistant principal violated his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. In its April 25 decision in N.C. v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, the state high court agreed.

The court said that under the U.S. Supreme Court's 2011 decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina, in which the justices ruled that a suspect's youth was an important factor in weighing whether he was in custody for purposes of delivering a Miranda warning, it was clear that N.C. was in custody when he was questioned about the pills. He was pulled from class by the SRO, who was present during the assistant principal's questioning. The student had no reason to believe he was free to leave. However, he was under the impression that he was only facing school discipline, and not that his statements might be used against him in a criminal proceeding, the court noted.

"No reasonable student, even the vast majority of 17-year-olds, would have believed that he was at liberty to remain silent, or to leave, or that he was even admitting to criminal responsibility under these circumstances," Justice Mary C. Noble wrote for the majority.

The court was troubled by the fact that the assistant principal and school resource officer had worked in "tandem" before in questioning students. "Clearly, the assistant principal and the officer had a loose routine they followed for questioning students when there was suspected criminal activity," the court said.

The court also expressed concern that the adoption of zero-tolerance policies for student possession of drugs and other contraband was leading to "a dramatic shift away from traditional in-school discipline towards greater reliance on juvenile justice interventions."

"To the extent that school safety is involved, school officials must be able to question students to avoid potential harm to that student and other students and school personnel," Noble said. "But when that questioning is done in the presence of law enforcement, for the additional purpose of obtaining evidence against the student to use in placing a criminal charge, the student's personal rights must be recognized."

"A proper balance is struck," Noble added, "if school officials may question freely for school discipline and safety purposes, but any statement obtained may not be used against a student as a basis for a criminal charge when law enforcement is involved or if the principal is working in concert with law enforcement in obtaining incriminating statements, unless the student is given the Miranda warnings and makes a knowing, voluntary statement after the warnings have been given."

A concurring justice stressed the availability of the "public safety exception" to the Miranda requirement, a lesson many in the country have learned in the last week in the case of the suspected Boston Marathon bomber. Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson noted a 2007 Massachusetts state court ruling that the public safety exception applied in a case in which a 13-year-old found in possession of bullets was questioned about whether he had a gun without being given a Miranda warning.

Writing in dissent, Justice Bill Cunningham said the majority's decision will tie the hands of school administrators. He said students "are always in custody" when they are in public schools and that school resource officers are more like school personnel than traditional police officers.

"In this day and age, we should not be impairing school safety by the enlargement of rights of the students," Cunningham said.

In a separate dissent, Justice Daniel J. Venters said he did not think the "exclusionary rule," in which evidence obtained in violation of a suspect's rights may not be admitted in court, should apply to most juvenile proceedings.

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