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"Kentucky Supreme Court Rules Administrators Must Give Miranda Warnings to Students in Certain Circumstances"

Education Law Alert
April 26, 2013

Thursday, the Kentucky Supreme Court held that administrators working in conjunction with a school resource officer must administer Miranda warnings to students prior to questioning students about criminal conduct. 

InN.C. v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, 2001-SC-000271-DF, an assistant principal of Nelson County High School questioned a juvenile student, identified only as N.C., about him giving away some prescription hydrocodone pills to other students.  The questioning occurred in the assistant principal's office, with the door closed.  The deputy sheriff assigned to the high school as the School Resource Officer (SRO) was also present throughout the entire questioning.  The questioning was done by both the assistant principal and the SRO.   N.C. believed he would only be faced with a school discipline proceeding.  As the opinion notes, he "had no reason to believe that he was facing criminal charges."  Ultimately, he confessed.  After the confession, the SRO told the student he was placing felony criminal charges against N.C. for possessing and dispensing a controlled substance.  No Miranda warnings, that is, the instruction of the right to remain silent and the right to legal counsel, were administered.

While the Court recognized the need to balance "the rights of the juvenile accused" with "the needs of school officials to maintain order in the school and protection for other children," it noted that if an adult had been in police custody under the same circumstances, Miranda warnings would have been required.  Thus, the Court held any time a student is in custody and being questioned by administrators and SROs working together, Miranda warnings are required.  Otherwise, any statements or confessions elicited will not be admissible in a criminal case against the student.

Although the opinion seems sweeping, the Court recognized  that "questioning by school officials is relevant and necessary to student discipline and safety."  These matters, the Court opined, "when only school discipline is involved," are not subject to the requirement of Miranda warnings.

In applying the Court's decision to your own schools, keep in mind that anytime a child is in a circumstance where he would perceive he is not free to leave, and in the presence of a SRO, then the Court would likely find that the child was "in custody."  When administrators are questioning students in custody in the presence of SROs or law enforcement, or especially if the SRO is leading the questioning, the child must be advised of his or her Miranda rights if criminal charges could result.  This decision does not affect interrogations by administrators or teachers when only school discipline is involved.  Nor does it affect the "public safety exception," that is, questioning by administrators and law enforcement without Miranda warnings when some type of imminent harm is still present.  When SROs are involved in questioning, and if criminal charges are contemplated, make sure Miranda warnings are given.