In its recent decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed students’ rights to traditional Miranda warnings when questioned by police officers in the school setting.  The Court’s holding regarding the constitutional protections of students may impact how your district permits law enforcement personnel to question students.

The case involves aNorth Carolinamiddle school student who claimed his confession to criminal offenses should be excluded from juvenile proceedings.  J.D.B. was a 13 year-old seventh grade student who was observed near the scene of two residential break-ins and was questioned by local police in connection with the crimes.  A few days after the initial interrogation, the juvenile investigator assigned to the crimes went to J.D.B.’s school and removed him from class.  The school’s resource officer brought J.D.B. to a school conference room, where the juvenile investigator, the school’s assistant principal and an administrative intern asked the student questions concerning the crimes for approximately forty-five minutes behind a closed door.  The student’s legal guardian was not called at any point, and the student was not informed that he could leave the interview or end the questioning.  The student was urged to “do the right thing” and was told that he might end up in juvenile detention in the event the matter proceeded to trial.  Thereafter, the student confessed to his involvement in the crimes.

Generally, Miranda rights must be read to a suspect whenever there is a custodial interrogation, meaning that a person must both (1) be in custody and (2) must be interrogated.  Justice Sotomayor, writing for the Court’s majority, noted the various contexts where minors have different mental capabilities than adults and observed that circumstances where an adult might feel free to leave or to end questioning—circumstances which would determine whether one was subjected to custodial interrogation—might be perceived differently by minors who generally believe they must comply with requests from authorities.  As a result, the Court held that unless a child’s age is known or objectively apparent at the time of the questioning, the child’s age must be determined in order to consider whether Miranda warnings should be given.  This holding could result in an adult not being entitled to Miranda warnings, but under the same circumstances, a minor would be entitled to them.  In the J.D.B. case, the Supreme Court remanded to the state court to decide whether the student was in custody when questioned at his school.  If he was, his confession would be excluded.

What does this case mean for your school district?  For routine investigations involving misconduct under a school district’s code of student conduct, it will have no effect.  The Miranda requirements only apply whenever an individual may incriminate themselves in a criminal proceeding and not in instances where a school district is applying its own discipline code.  This distinction can be murky when schools employ resource officers from local police departments to be present in school buildings.  In instances where a district’s school resource officers conduct investigations that might give rise to juvenile charges being filed, or where school personnel are aiding law enforcement personnel in criminal investigations, attention must be paid to whether Miranda warnings should be given or whether other procedural protections should be provided.  Many school districts have board policy or procedure which require that a student’s parent or guardian be called before a student is questioned by law enforcement personnel, and this approach alleviates the issue entirely by permitting the student’s parent or guardian to make those decisions for his or her child.  Otherwise, the Supreme Court has made clear that interrogations of students must be analyzed under the same standards enunciated in Miranda, with special attention to the student’s age, in determining whether the student would feel free to leave or cut off the questioning.

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Alfred Maiello

Alfred C. Maiello is the founding member of MBM and has represented area school districts as solicitor for 50 years. He counsels school districts and educational institutions on leading developments in school law and guiding them through their day-to-day and long-term challenges.