Kentucky High Court: Miranda Protects Students, Too

Kentucky High Court: Miranda Protects Students, Too

The Kentucky Supreme Court has determined that students who are subject to questioning by law enforcement personnel and administrators, in a school setting, are entitled to be provided the traditional Miranda warnings.  A divided court held, over a sharply critical dissent, that when law enforcement officers are present -- even during questioning of the student by administrators -- the questioning constitutes a "custodial interrogation."

 In the case, an empty prescription bottle of hydrocodone belonging to "N.C." was found in the boy's restroom of a school.  N.C. was questioned by the Assistant Principal, in the presence of the School Resource Officer, about the empty bottle, and ultimately confessed to having given pills to other students.  The Asst. Principal admitted this pattern of questioning students in the presence or with the assistance of the SRO was typical, and that he had seen the SRO conduct interrogations before.

Justice Mary Noble, writing for the majority, held that Miranda was implicated because law enforcement officers were present and acting "in concert" with the school administrator during the questioning, and because the alleged conduct included possible criminal conduct.   Had the issue involved only questioning by the school administrator outside the presence of the SRO, or perhaps violation of school policy that did not rise to the level of criminal conduct, no Miranda warning would have been required.

Dissenters argued that Miranda's notion of "custodial interrogation" was not the same as the the custody of students that occurs within a school, where students are not truly free to leave anyway.   Moreover, the dissenters argued, the presence of an SRO during questioning by the school administrator "does not make it a custodial interrogation anymore than the presence of a priest would have made it a church service." 

Dissenting Justice Venters further proposed a limitation on evidence gathered without Miranda only in circumstances where the information gathered from a juvenile appeared to be the product of reckless or grossly negligent police conduct, or otherwise involuntarily given. 

For school administrators, SROs, and criminal prosecutors, the future will tell the impact of the Court's ruling in N.C. v. Commonwealth, and what the implication of Miranda in the context of school investigations may mean.