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New Mexico Court Tosses Student Confession on Alcohol at School

The New Mexico Supreme Court has thrown out a high school student's admission to his principal that he was drinking alcohol at school because he received no warning of his right to remain silent and the statement was used against him in a juvenile-delinquency proceeding.

The state's highest court ruled 5-0 that the student identified as Antonio T. did not waive his state statutory right to remain silent about the alcohol use.

"Although a school official may insist that a child answer questions for purposes of school disciplinary proceedings, any statements elicited by the official may not be used against the child in a delinquency proceeding unless the child made a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of his or her right to remain silent," the court said in its Oct. 23 ruling in New Mexico v. Antonio T.

While the decision was made based on protections for juvenile suspects under New Mexico law, the court noted that a lower appellate court had analyzed the case under the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment guarantee against self-incrimination. The state high court also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had confronted a similar situation in a 2011 case. In J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the justices held that a child's age was a factor in determining whether the police must give a Miranda warning.

In the New Mexico case, Antonio T. was 17 in 2010 when he was called to the assistant principal's office at Kirkland Central High School on suspicion of using alcohol in school. In the presence of the school resource officer at his high school, the student admitted to the assistant principal that he had brought alcohol to school and consumed some of it.

The administrator then asked the SRO to give Antonio T. a breathalyzer test, which was positive for alchohol. The officer then explained to the student his right to remain silent, and Antonio T. declined to discuss the matter further.

The student faced a state delinquency proceeding, where he sought to suppress his statements to the assistant principal. A trial judge and lower appellate court denied his motion. But the state supreme court ruled in his favor.

The court noted that under New Mexico law, a statement made by a child aged 15 or older would be inadmissible in a juvenile proceeding if it was elicited without informing the child of his or her right to remain silent and requiring the child to "knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily" waive that right. (Younger children have even greater protections.)

The lower appellate court had ruled that only statements elicited by law-enforcement agents implicated the protections of the state statute. But the state high court said that "because the right to silence is an individual right, Antonio had the right to remain silent in the face of the assistant principal's questions because the information about his possession of alcohol could be used in a subsequent delinquency proceeding against him."

The court stressed that its decision did not mean school administrators would have to start warning students of their right to remain silent when only school discipline was at stake, nor did it preclude students' statements from being used in disciplinary proceedings.

"Antonio appeared to have understood that his answers to [the assistant principal's] questions would affect his discipline under school rules, but once the deputy questioned him, he then faced potential criminal charges."

The court sent the case back to juvenile court for further proceedings.

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