Kentucky Court Considers Miranda Warnings

Last Updated: November 27, 2012

This article appeared in the November 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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Last month, the Kentucky Supreme Court heard arguments in a case from Nelson County that could result in students being given Miranda warnings before being questioned at school in the presence of a law enforcement officer.

In the case under consideration, a student was questioned in the school office by an assistant principal in the presence of the armed school resource officer about an empty prescription bottle found with his name on it. The student admitted bringing prescription pain medication to school and giving some of it to other students. He was ultimately charged with a crime and served jail time. The student and his lawyers argued his confession should not have been admitted as evidence because he was not told of his Miranda rights.

The Nelson County juvenile court held that the student, N.C., was not in custody and therefore not due a Miranda warning. That court also characterized the school resource officer as a mere “witness.” The Kentucky Court of Appeals refused to hear the case, but the Kentucky Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments, many believe, because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling about juvenile Miranda rights.

Law enforcement officials must always give the warnings unless the subject is not in custody and feels free to leave. Typically school officials do not have to give the warnings, which include telling individuals that they have the right to remain silent and have the right to an attorney. However, the nation’s highest court has said that a student’s age must be considered in balancing whether that student would reasonably understand he or she is “free to leave” an interrogation in school. (See previous RPM coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in J. D. B. v. North Carolina here.)

Opponents of the potential school Miranda warnings, including school leadership organizations, have said that such a requirement would “hamstring” administrators’ ability to keep schools safe. Attorneys for the Nelson County schools said that the “case at hand was simply a school administrator looking into a possible violation of a school policy and not an investigation of criminal activity."

However, student advocacy organizations and many legal experts — including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor - have said that children are inherently at risk of being pressured into false confessions and that schools should err on the side of advising them of their rights.

School safety expert Jon Akers, the Director of the Center for School Safety at Eastern Kentucky University, said principals should step aside when students are suspected of criminal conduct. “It is always cleaner when law enforcement handles that,” he said.

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Read more from the November 2012
Rural Policy Matters.