Law & Courts

High Court Cases Focus on In-School Questionings

By Mark Walsh — February 22, 2011 6 min read
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A pair of cases to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next month highlight broad questions about interactions between the police and the schools and the implications for school officials when investigators come knocking.

In a case from Bend, Ore., a 9-year-old girl was pulled from her classroom one day in 2003 and taken to a school office, where she was interviewed by a state child-protective-services caseworker and a deputy sheriff.

The authorities suspected the girl was being sexually abused at home. After lengthy questioning, the girl told the investigators that she had been touched inappropriately by her father. The girl and her sister were briefly removed from their home, but criminal charges against their father were later dismissed.

In a case from Durham, N.C., a 13-year-old special education student was removed from class in 2005 for questioning. The boy was suspected of breaking into several neighborhood homes and stealing jewelry and a digital camera.

He was questioned in a school conference room by a Durham juvenile-offenses investigator, a uniformed police officer assigned to the middle school, and an assistant principal, who encouraged the boy to “do the right thing, because the truth always comes out in the end.” The boy confessed to the thefts, and his statement was used against him in a juvenile proceeding in which he was judged to be delinquent.

On the Docket

Camreta v. Greene

A state child protective services caseworker in Oregon and a deputy sheriff interviewed a 9-year-old girl at her school about suspected sexual abuse of her by her father. The girl’s mother sued the authorities, arguing that the interview at school violated the girl’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure. The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a lower-court decision that said such questioning of a child at school requires a warrant or parental consent. The case will be argued March 1.

J.D.B. v. North Carolina

Police, along with an assistant principal, interrogated a 13-year-old special education student at school about neighborhood thefts. The boy confessed to the crimes and was adjudicated a delinquent, but he appealed, claiming that he was in custody at the school interrogation and should have been given a warning about his rights under Miranda v. Arizona. Arguments are set for March 23.

The Oregon case involves the legal issue of whether the authorities need a warrant or parental consent before they may interview a suspected victim of parental sex abuse at school. In the North Carolina case, the question is whether a juvenile’s age may be a factor in determining whether he was in police custody and thus should have been provided a Miranda warning about his constitutional rights.

“Our children are growing up in an era when there is a police presence on their school campuses from a very early age,” said Meg Penrose, a law professor at Texas Wesleyan University, in Fort Worth, who has written about the issue. “I think the Supreme Court is going to have to grapple with that increased police presence.”

‘Untenable’ Role

The two cases, Camreta v. Greene (No. 09-1454) and J.D.B. v. North Carolina (No. 09-11121), ultimately focus more on the legal duties of the police and the courts with regard to school interviews of children than on the responsibilities of educators. But school administrators can be caught in the middle.

In the Oregon case, to be argued March 1, the mother of the girl identified as S.G. sued not only the investigators who questioned her daughter, but also the Bend-La Pine school district and the school counselor who had removed the girl from class. The mother says in court papers that only after two hours of denying any abuse did S.G. tell the investigators what the girl believed they wanted to hear—that her father had touched her improperly.

The school district and the counselor were dismissed as defendants by a federal district court, and the mother did not pursue that issue on appeal. In 2009, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled that the questioning of the girl in school constituted a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment, and that the investigators needed a search warrant based on probable cause, or else parental consent.

“When uniformed police officers start coming into schools and pulling children out of class and questioning them behind closed doors, children no longer feel that school is the place where they can learn without interruption,” said Carolyn A. Kubitschek, a New York City lawyer who will argue the mother’s case before the Supreme Court. “It is simply not a good use of a school to make it a satellite police station.”

While the mother is joined at the high court by numerous groups raising parental-rights concerns, the two investigators who brought the appeal to the justices have 40 states as well as prosecutors’ and school boards’ groups on their side.

“When it has to do with suspected child abuse, it is pretty clear where the schools will fall,” said Dori Brattain, the general counsel of the Oregon School Boards Association. “When the parent is the one suspected of doing the abuse, the police don’t want to go to the home, of course. The school makes sense [as the place to interview the child].”

The group joined the National School Boards Association in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the Camreta case on the side of the investigators. The brief notes that some states require schools to give the police access to students in child-abuse investigations, a practice premised on the notion that no warrant or parental consent is constitutionally required in such circumstances.

“If the presumption underlying these statutes is incorrect and school districts and officials are potentially implicated in a ‘seizure’ merely by allowing access to a student, then they are cast in the very uneasy and ultimately untenable role of gatekeeper,” the brief from the school boards’ groups says.

In the North Carolina case, to be argued March 23, the legal issue involves whether age should come into consideration when determining whether a youth was in custody and thus entitled to the familiar warnings about constitutional rights under the 1966 Supreme Court case of Miranda v. Arizona.

The boy identified as J.D.B. is appealing a 2009 ruling against him by the North Carolina Supreme Court. That court said that taking the boy’s age and his status as a special education student into account would turn the Miranda custody inquiry into a subjective one, instead of the objective inquiry that the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedents require to guide everyday police work. Under those precedents, the custody inquiry generally turns on whether a reasonable person in the suspect’s situation would perceive that he was free to leave the police interrogation.

The juvenile’s lawyers emphasize points made by the dissenting members of the state high court, that by questioning a young suspect in school, the police take advantage of the student’s compulsory attendance, typical submission to school authorities, and the lack of presence of the youth’s parents.

The American Civil Liberties Union, in a friend-of-the-court brief on the boy’s side, goes further, warning the justices about what it sees as a growing police presence in schools and the criminalization of some school discipline problems.

“It should be a concern to educators that schools not become just a potential arm of law enforcement,” said Dennis D. Parker, the director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program and the co-author of the group’s brief. “Schools cannot be a Constitution-free zone, where the police can do all the interrogations they want.”

Mr. Parker stressed that the police can play a proper role in preserving public safety in the schools. But when questioning young people in school, their age should play a role in the custody inquiry, and in cases such as that of J.D.B., a Miranda warning should be provided, he said.

Familiar Setting

North Carolina prosecutors say taking age into account would open the custody inquiry into other subjective factors, such as the suspect’s education level or potential vulnerabilities such as mental infirmities. And they argue that the fact that J.D.B.’s interrogation took place at school has no bearing on the custody inquiry.

“While it is true that students must follow certain rules while at school, the school setting itself is a familiar one to a student,” the North Carolina attorney general’s office says in its brief. “In that respect, it is less inherently coercive than a police station.”

The state has a strong ally in the Obama administration, which will also argue in the Supreme Court that age should not be a factor in the Miranda analysis.

“The possibility that law-enforcement officers may interview juveniles at school … provides no sound basis for either a general or a school-specific extension of the Miranda custody test to require consideration of the psychological effects of age,” says the brief by Acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Kumar Katyal.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as High Court Cases Focus on Police Questionings at School

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