Kentucky Supreme Court rules student was entitled to Miranda warnings before questioning by assistant principal in the presence of school resource officer

N.C. v. Kentucky, No. 2011-SC-000271 (Ky. Apr. 25, 2013)

Abstract: The Kentucky Supreme Court, in a 4-3 split, rules that a high school student, who was detained in the school office for questioning by an assistant principal regarding giving prescription drugs to a classmate in the presence of a school resource officer, was entitled to Miranda warnings before the school official began the questioning.  The court’s majority held “that any incriminating statements elicited under the circumstances of this case, with a school official working with the police on a case involving a criminal offense, the police failing to give Miranda warnings, and the juvenile being in custody, are subject to suppression under the Unified Juvenile Code and the Fifth Amendment.”   It concluded that the student was in custody at the time of questioning and any statements made must be suppressed.

Facts: Issues: A teacher at Nelson County High School (NCHS) found an empty prescription pill bottle for hydrocodone with student N.C.’s name on it on the floor in the boy’s bathroom.  An investigation was conducted before N.C. was questioned.  Assistant Principal Michael Glass, having ascertained that N.C. had given some pills to a classmate, went with Steven D. Campbell, a Nelson County deputy sheriff assigned to NCHS as the School Resource Officer (SRO), to remove N.C. from class for questioning.

N.C. was taken to a room in the school office where he was subjected to closed door questioning by Glass in the presence of the SRO.  After Glass informed N.C. that he had recovered the bottle, N.C. admitted to having given two of the pills to a classmate.  N.C. explained that the medication had been prescribed after he had his wisdom teeth removed.

A.P. Glass told N.C. that he was subject to school discipline (in fact he was subsequently expelled).  He then left to check on the other student while the SRO told N.C. that he would be charged with a crime and explained the criminal consequences.  N.C. was charged with possessing and dispensing a controlled substance, a Class D felony, in a juvenile petition.

The SRO testified that he was present throughout the questioning, and participated in the discussion.  He was either wearing his uniform or a shirt that said “Sheriff’s Office,” and was armed with a gun.  He was assigned to the high school from the sheriff’s office, and had been there daily for the last four years.  It was the SRO’s decision to file charges against N.C.  At no time did the SRO tell N.C. that he was free to leave or give him any version of the Miranda warnings, though the officer obviously understood that the hydrocodone was a scheduled narcotic, as evidenced by the charges he filed in juvenile court.  The charges read that N.C. “has admitted to the affiant to giving two (2) of his prescription pills (Hydrocodone, Schedule II drug for pain relief) to another student at Nelson County High School.”

The assistant principal testified that he knew how the SRO operated in criminal investigations, since this was not their “first go around” interrogating juveniles together.  Clearly, the assistant principal and the officer had a loose routine they followed for questioning students when there was suspected criminal activity.

N.C. filed a motion to suppress the statements he made to A.P. Glass.  The juvenile court denied N.C.’s motion to suppress.  N.C. entered a conditional guilty plea to the charge, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his motion. He appealed to the Nelson Circuit Court, which affirmed the lower court decision.  A  motion for discretionary review was filed at the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which denied review.  In February 2012, the Kentucky Supreme Court granted review.

Ruling/Rationale: A four justice majority of the Kentucky Supreme Court framed the issue as “whether a student is entitled to the benefit of the Miranda warnings before being questioned by a school official in conjunction with a law enforcement officer, the SRO, when he is subject to criminal charges.”  The majority held that the statements N.C. made to the assistant principal should be suppressed under the Kentucky Unified Juvenile Code and the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.   In addition to the majority opinion, there was one concurring opinion and two dissenting opinions.

According to the majority, the question “presents a nexus between the rights of a juvenile accused of a crime and the needs of school officials to maintain order in the schools and protection for the other children in their care on the school premises or during school activities.”  Beginning with a discussion of whether Miranda applies, it looked to the two-part threshold that must be satisfied before the warnings are required.  The two-step threshold requires both questioning by law enforcement and being held in custody.

The majority noted that when it is the police or other law enforcement officer who is doing the questioning, the first threshold is obviously met.  Further, it pointed out that since Miranda, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that in some situations persons who are not law enforcement will be treated as such for Miranda purposes.   The Supreme Court has noted that the law enforcement requirement in Miranda may be contextual.   Kentucky followed this line of reasoning in Buster v. Commonwealth, 364 S.W.3d 157 (Ky. 2012), where the Kentucky Supreme Court held that a non-law enforcement person was acting on behalf of or in concert with police to obtain a confession and thus Miranda warnings were required.  In Buster, police could not obtain a statement from a mentally challenged suspect, so they engaged a social worker, whom the suspect knew well and trusted, to question the suspect and turn the information over to police.  This made the questioning “indistinguishable from the police investigation,” and therefore the social worker was “subject to the same constraints as a police officer.” Id. at 164-65.

The majority found that the second threshold question, whether a person is in custody, “is an objective inquiry.”  It stated that such an inquiry “requires a court to determine the circumstances surrounding the interrogation and, given those circumstances, to decide whether a reasonable person would believe he could terminate the interrogation and leave.”

The majority warned that even when Miranda warnings are given, the statement may still fail to be admissible because it was not given voluntarily. Nonetheless, the absence of such warnings when required renders the statement inadmissible.  In order to determine voluntariness, the majority pointed out that the Supreme Court has established the “‘totality of the circumstances’ test which viewed knowledge of the right to refuse consent as a factor.”  The majority stated: “[T]his ‘totality of the circumstances’ test has been adopted in determining voluntariness, with a more demanding standard in criminal cases placed on defining voluntariness of self-incrimination, which includes the giving of Miranda warnings, in custodial interrogations by law enforcement.”

In regard to the custody aspect of Miranda in juvenile cases, the majority relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 131 S.Ct. 2394 (2011),

U.S. Supreme Court Decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina  

J.D.B. was a 13-year-old student who was removed from his classroom by a uniformed police officer, escorted to a closed-door conference room, and questioned by the officer.  A digital camera which had been stolen from a neighborhood home had been seen in J.D.B.’s possession.  J.D.B. was questioned with two police officers (one in uniform) and two administrators present, for 30 to 45 minutes.  He was not given the Miranda warnings or an opportunity to speak with his grandmother, and was not told he was free to leave the room. J.D.B. was asked about what he had done the prior weekend which was when the camera was stolen.  He denied any wrong-doing, and said he was in the neighborhood looking for lawns to mow.  The assistant principal then urged J.D.B. to do the right thing, warning that the truth always comes out in the end. J.D.B. then admitted his involvement.  It was only at that point that he was told that he could refuse to answer questions and was free to leave. J.D.B. then wrote a statement and was allowed to catch the bus home that day.

Two juvenile petitions were filed against J.D.B.  He filed a motion to suppress his statements claiming that he had been interrogated in a custodial setting without benefit of the Miranda warnings. Taking for granted that Miranda applied if the child were in custody, the Supreme Court specifically held that a child’s age is a factor that must be considered in doing the Miranda custody analysis, and approved an “all relevant circumstances” test that is broader than a “totality of the circumstances” test.

Saying that the Miranda safeguards were put in place because the voluntariness test alone could not adequately guard against the inherent pressures of a custodial interrogation, and setting forth at length many ways that children respond differently from mature adults, the Court concluded that only the full scope of the Miranda protections ensures due process to children.  The Court noted the particular susceptibility of juveniles to the influence of authority figures and the naturally constraining effect of being in the controlled setting of a school with its attendant rules.  Writing for the majority, Justice Sotomayor observed that the custody question must be answered by an objective inquiry: what were the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, and given those circumstances, would a reasonable person believe he could terminate the interrogation and leave?

And, in the case of children, the Court found that there were broader considerations, such as the juvenile’s age, which could carry increased weight when determining if a child is in custody.  The Court remanded the case to the state courts to fully consider all the relevant circumstances of the situation, a standard that the Court said was more inclusive than the totality of the circumstances test applied to adults.

In N.C. v Kentucky, the majority concluded that the “facts of this case demonstrate that Appellant was in custody under the ‘all relevant factors’ test set forth in J.D.B.”  The majority noted the following facts.  N.C. was taken from his classroom by a law enforcement officer, who wore a gun, was seated in the assistant principal’s office, and the door was shut.  The law enforcement officer sat down right beside him, across from the assistant principal.  The assistant principal testified that he expected N.C. to stay put, which was no doubt conveyed by his demeanor.  Neither the officer nor the assistant principal told N.C. that he was free to leave.  He was initially questioned by the assistant principal instead of the officer, thereby leading him to believe this was only a school discipline matter

According to the majority, “The student had no reason to believe that he was facing criminal charges.”  It emphasized that “[i]t was not until the questioning was over and the confession made that the law enforcement officer told N.C. that he was placing felony criminal charges against him.”  The majority continued: “No reasonable student, even the vast majority of seventeen 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.”

Responding to the State’s argument that the assistant principal was not a “state actor”, the majority said: “Because the assistant principal was acting in concert with the SRO, and they had established a process for cases involving interrogations of this kind, this conduct and the SRO’s presence make this state action by law enforcement for Miranda purposes even if the confession came in response to questions from the assistant principal rather than the SRO.”

Lastly, the majority said, “This case presents the Court with the opportunity to balance the important public policy concerns of educators and parents to provide an appropriate and safe school environment while still protecting the individual rights of a child when the child is embroiled in the juvenile justice system.”  The majority found that balance by recognizing the different purposes of questioning a student.  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.  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.  The majority concluded

“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.”

The concurring opinion emphasized that a public safety exception, allowing the admission of certain statements made prior to any Miranda warnings, was recognized in New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984), and has been used in the school context where there was credible evidence of a gun on school grounds.  Commonwealth v. Dillon D., 863 N.E.2d 1287 (Mass. 2007) (holding that the public-safety exception applied where a thirteen-year-old middle school student was found in possession of bullets and, before having been properly Mirandized, was questioned about a gun).

The first dissent, written by Justice Cunningham, concluded that the questioning in the present case did not “constitute a police interrogation as anticipated by Miranda.”  Cunningham wrote: “The presence of a school resource officer, who by law must be a certified law enforcement officer, does not make it a custodial interrogation anymore than the presence of a priest would have made it a church service.”

The other dissent, written by Justice Venters, took the novel approach of suggesting a new rule that would limit the application of the exclusionary rule. Venters proposed that in juvenile delinquency cases, probative evidence would be excluded under the exclusionary rule only where it “serves to deter deliberate, reckless, or grossly negligent” police conduct and, in the case of Fifth Amendment violations, only where the circumstances indicate the statement was actually involuntarily given or was produced under circumstances that cast doubt upon its reliability.  Otherwise, the exclusionary rule should not apply in a juvenile court adjudication.

 N.C. v. Kentucky, No. 2011-SC-000271 (Ky. Apr. 25, 2013)

[Editor's Note: In June 2011, Legal Clips summarized an article from NPR reporting  that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 split, had broadened use of the Miranda warning for suspects, extending it to children questioned by police in school.  The Court ruled, in J.B.D. v. North Carolina, No. 11121, that age must be considered in determining whether a suspect is in custody for purposes of administering Miranda warnings.

In July 2011, Legal Clips summarized a Washington Post article that reported on police questioning of a Virginia student that raised Miranda issues addressed in J.B.D.] 

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