Antonio T. v. State of New Mexico, No. 33,997 (N.M. Oct. 23, 2014)
Abstract: New Mexico Supreme Court has ruled that a high school student’s admission to a school administrator that he had brought alcohol on school grounds and consumed it there was not admissible at the student’s delinquency hearing on the charge of possession of an alcoholic beverage by a minor under state law. The court concluded that the law contained an exclusionary provision, based on the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, that barred admitting into evidence statements by minors accused of committing delinquent acts unless the minor waives his right to remain silent. It acknowledged that the school administrator could compel the minor student to answer questions related to in-school disciplinary matters and that the answers to those questions could be used against the student in a school disciplinary proceeding because the exclusionary provision only applies to admissibility of statements at delinquency proceedings.
Facts/Issues: Antonio T., a student at Kirtland Central High School (KCHS), was escorted by two teachers to Assistant Principal Vanessa Sarna’s office on the suspicion that he was under the influence of alcohol. Confirming that suspicion, Sarna had the student resource officer (SRO) on duty administer a breath test to Antonio. The SRO is a deputy sheriff with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office who had spent over eleven years on the police force before being assigned to KCHS as an SRO. He was in uniform, including his badge and gun. The SRO was present while Sarna questioned Antonio about his drinking. Antonio admitted to bringing alcohol to school and consuming it on campus. The statements that Antonio made during Sarna’s questions were documented in the SRO’s police report under the “Investigative” heading.
At Sarna’s request, the SRO administered a breath alcohol test to Antonio. He tested positive for alcohol. No parent or guardian was present, and the SRO did not read Antonio his Miranda rights before he administered the breath test because at that time the SRO “was going by what the school was requesting.”
While the SRO was administering the breath test, Sarna searched Antonio’s backpack and located a folding pocket knife. At Sarna’s request, the SRO conducted a search for the plastic bottle that had contained the alcohol. When the search proved unsuccessful, the SRO returned to Sarna’s office where he read Antonio his Miranda rights. Antonio answered the SRO’s questions about the knife, but he refused to answer questions regarding alcohol consumption.
Antonio was only charged with possession of alcoholic beverages by a minor. He filed a motion to suppress his statement or confession pursuant to Section 32A-2-14(C) through (E), of New Mexico’s Delinquency Act, stating as grounds that “the State cannot prove that the statement or confession offered in evidence was elicited after a knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiver of the Child’s rights and must be suppressed.” Antonio specifically cited Section 32A-2-14(D), which “requires that the state shall prove the statement or confession offered in evidence was elicited only after a knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiver of the child’s constitutional rights was obtained. ”
The trial court denied the motion. Antonio entered into a conditional plea and disposition agreement, reserving his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. He appealed to the New Mexico Court of Appeals, which affirmed the district court’s ruling. The appellate court analyzed the suppression as a constitutional issue, and discussed the constitutional rights of children during custodial interrogations. It concluded that Antonio had been subjected to an investigatory detention as opposed to a custodial interrogation.
The appellate court noted that “Section 32A-2-14 has thus far only been applied in cases where law enforcement has interrogated or detained a child, never in instances of school discipline involving only a school administrator” and that “Section 32A-2-14 applies to investigations by or on behalf of law enforcement officials.” It concluded that Sarna was acting within the scope of her duties as a school administrator and was not acting as an agent for law enforcement, and therefore she was not obligated to issue Miranda warnings to Antonio. The appellate court did not address Antonio’s statutory claim that his statement was inadmissible under the plain language of Section 32A-2-14(D), which was the original ground for Antonio’s motion to suppress.
Both Antonio and the state appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court. The appeal addressed two issues: (1) Did the Court of Appeals err in affirming the trial court’s denial of Antonio’s suppression motion; and (2) was the plea invalid because there was insufficient evidence? The state supreme court also addressed the question raised in the state’s appeal: did the Court of Appeals err in holding that Antonio was in investigatory detention? The question discussed in the state’s appeal is not addressed herein.
Ruling/Rationale: The New Mexico Supreme Court held that Antonio’s statements to Sarna should be suppressed and, therefore, he was entitled to withdraw his guilty plea. It pointed out that the federal constitutional right at issue in the case is the right to remain silent. It explained that because the state legislature recognized that minors may not understand the right or that they are entitled to assert the right, the legislature provided procedural safeguards that must be met before any statement of a child is admitted as evidence in a court proceeding.
As a result, the state supreme court pointed to four factors that courts must consider before admitting a child’s statement or confession into evidence: (1) the age of the child, (2) whether the child’s statement was elicited, (3) whether the child was advised of his or her constitutional rights before the statement was elicited, and (4) whether the child made a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of those constitutional rights, using the listed criteria in Section 32A-2-14(E). The State has the burden of proof on each of these elements.
In regard to minors age 15 or over, the supreme court found that statements made spontaneously without prompting, i.e., statements not elicited, are admissible. Unlike the appellate court, the supreme court found that elicited statements by minors 15 and older are admissible only if the state proves “that the child was advised of his or her constitutional rights and knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived these rights, regardless of who elicited the statement.” It concluded that the appellate court had erroneously interpreted 32A-2-14(D) “to preclude only statements or confessions elicited by law enforcement officers or their agents.”
The supreme court clarified its previous holding in Javier M., 33 P.3d 1 (N.M. 2001), stressing that in that case the court was “not asked to determine whether the statute applied to persons other than law enforcement officers.” It said, “The issue in Javier M. was confined to whether law enforcement officers are obliged to warn and obtain a waiver before interrogating a child under Section 32A-2-14(C).” The supreme court determined that “Section 32A-2-14(D) does not deal with the rights of children in the context of police encounters before the accused child is brought to court,” but rather “provides direction to judges and litigants in court proceedings, setting a purely evidentiary standard regarding what statements of a child are admissible as evidence in court.”
Having determined that the language in Section 32A-2-14(D) clearly does not specify that the statement must have been elicited “by a particular type of person,” the supreme court concluded, based on the rules of statutory construction, that it did not create an exception limiting application of Section 32A-2-14 (D) to law enforcement agents. Therefore, it held that “By its plain reading, Section 32A-2- 14(D) applies to statements elicited from a child by any person, regardless of that person’s status or position.” This interpretation furthers the legislative intent “to provide children with greater statutory protection than constitutionally mandated.”
Based on its legal conclusions, the supreme court found that the fact that the statements were elicited by a school official rather than a law enforcement officer was not controlling in regard to whether Antonio’s statements were admissible into evidence. The state still had the burden of proving that Antonio “knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his constitutional right to remain silent.” It determined that the state failed to meet that burden.
Noting that Antonio had been accused of a delinquent act, i.e., possessing and consuming alcoholic beverages, the court noted that he was entitled to assert the right to remain silent. It stated, “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.” However, the supreme court acknowledged that there is a difference between “questioning a child for school disciplinary matters and questioning a child because he or she is suspected of criminal wrongdoing.” It agreed that Sarna was entitled to compel answers from Antonio “involving in-school disciplinary matters.”
The supreme court also acknowledged that those statements could then be used against him in a school disciplinary proceeding “because the Delinquency Act does not apply to non-criminal proceedings.” However, it concluded that Antonio’s statements “could not be used in court proceedings without the requisite showing under Sections 32A-2-14(D) and (E).” It held that “The State did not establish that Antonio was advised of his right to remain silent. Nor does the State contend that Antonio expressly waived his right to remain silent. In addition, his answers to Ms. Sarna’s questions do not support a finding that he knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his right to remain silent. Accordingly, the Legislature has made it clear that such statements cannot be used as evidence in delinquency proceedings under Section 32A-2-14(D).”
In closing, the supreme court stressed that its holding “should not be construed to require school administrators to advise a child of his or her right to remain silent in order to use incriminating statements elicited from the child against the child in school disciplinary proceedings.” It again pointed out that the “plain language … of Section 32A-2-14(D) is only a bar to the admissibility of children’s confessions in delinquency proceedings; in no way does it prevent children’s confessions from being used against them in school disciplinary proceedings.”
Antonio T. v. State of New Mexico, No. 33,999 (N.M. Oct. 23, 2014)
[Editor’s Note: In May 2013, Legal Clips summarized the The Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision in N.C. v. Kentucky holding that a high school student who was detained in the school office, in the presence of a school resource officer, for questioning by an assistant principal regarding giving prescription drugs to a classmate 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.]