Law & Courts

High Court Takes Case on Police ‘Custody’ on Campus

By Mark Walsh — November 09, 2010 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to consider whether a juvenile burglary suspect who was interrogated at school by the police was in custody and should have been given a Miranda warning about his rights.

The case raises questions about routine cooperation between police and school officials, especially in an era when many police departments assign school resource officers to campuses.

The justices on Nov. 1 accepted an appeal filed on behalf of a North Carolina boy identified as J.D.B., a 13-year-old special education student when the police showed up at his middle school in 2005 to question him about a string of neighborhood burglaries.

The boy was escorted to a school conference room, where he was interrogated by a Chapel Hill, N.C., juvenile-crimes investigator in the presence of the school resource officer, an assistant principal, and a school administrative intern. His parents were not contacted, and he was not given any warnings about his rights under the Supreme Court’s landmark 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona.

Under that ruling, a suspect must be advised that he has the right to remain silent, anything he says can be used against him, and he can have a lawyer present or be provided with one before questioning if he can’t afford a lawyer. A line of the high court’s subsequent cases holds that custody must be determined based on a how a reasonable person in the suspect’s situation would perceive his circumstances, such as whether he felt free to leave.

Free to Leave?

After being confronted with evidence and with the assistant principal’s urging him to “do the right thing because the truth always comes out in the end,” J.D.B. confessed to the thefts and wrote a statement describing the crimes. The police then obtained a warrant and recovered stolen items at his home and elsewhere.

Lawyers for the boy sought to suppress his confession. The state maintained that J.D.B. was never in custody during the school interrogation. Law-enforcement officials say that the conference room was unlocked, and that the juvenile investigator told the boy he did not have to speak to him, and “if you want to get up and leave, you can do so.”

A trial judge found that those statements by the investigator came after the boy had confessed, but ruled that J.D.B. was not in custody during the interrogation and rejected his motion to suppress the confession.

The North Carolina Supreme Court also rejected the boy’s claim. In a 4-3 decision last December, the court said it could not consider the boy’s age or special education status in determining whether he was in custody, and because he was not in custody, he was not entitled to a Miranda warning.

The state high court cited a 2004 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, in Yarborough v. Alvarado, which upheld police questioning of a 17-year-old at a police station without a Miranda warning. The North Carolina Supreme Court’s majority opinion in J.D.B.'s case drew two vigorous dissents. One dissenter said the police took advantage of the middle school’s “restrictive environment and its psychological effect by choosing to interrogate J.D.B. there.”

School Officials’ Role

The youth filed a pauper’s appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court in J.D.B. v. State of North Carolina (Case No. 09-11121). His public defenders argued that the justices have never squarely decided whether a juvenile’s age may be considered by courts in making a Miranda custody determination.

The North Carolina attorney general’s office filed a brief urging the justices not to take up the case. “While juveniles may be developmentally different than adults, those differences are wholly irrelevant to the issue of custody” the brief said.

Paul Holland, an associate professor at Seattle University’s law school, noted that J.D.B. faced a police investigator and three school officials in the conference room. There can be little doubt, he argued, that when police officers interrogate a 13-year-old in school, they know they are dealing with someone subject to coercion.

“The officer knows he’s dealing with a youth, and the youth is at a disadvantage,” said Mr. Holland, an advocate for juvenile rights.

The case also raises questions about the proper response of administrators when the police arrive at the school door, although that may not be a question the high court answers in this case.

“If I was an administrator, I would want to be consulting with my board and my counsel to establish a procedure,” Mr. Holland said. “Before I pulled a student out of his educational program, I would call his parents. The parents can decide to show up or get a lawyer.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as High Court Takes Case on Miranda Warnings at Schools

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