In an opinion handed down yesterday, N.C. v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, the Kentucky Supreme Court held that a student’s confession to an assistant principal and school resource officer of giving away prescription narcotics at school could not be used against him in a criminal proceeding because the student had not been given Miranda warnings prior to the confession. After finding an empty prescription pill bottle for hydrocodone in the boy’s bathroom at Nelson County High School, the assistant principal and the school resource officer (SRO), a deputy sheriff assigned to the high school who was wearing a uniform and was armed with a gun, escorted N.C. out of class and into the principal’s office and closed the door. The pills had been legally prescribed to N.C., and his name was on the bottle. The assistant principal had knowledge that N.C. had given some of the pills away before taking him out of class. During the questioning, in the presence of the assistant principal and the SRO, N.C. admitted that he had given two pills away to a classmate. Only after N.C. confessed did the SRO tell N.C. that he would face criminal charges.
N.C. was charged with Possessing and Dispensing a Controlled Substance, a class D felony under Kentucky law. The only basis for the criminal prosecution was N.C.’s confession to the assistant principal and the SRO. N.C. moved to suppress the confession, but the lower courts ruled against him. The Kentucky Supreme Court began its analysis by observing whether N.C. was in “custody” at the time of his confession. The general rule is that Miranda warnings are required anytime an individual is (1) questioned by law enforcement, and (2) is in custody. There’s no question here that N.C. was questioned by law enforcement, so the issue turns on whether he was actually in custody at the time of the confession. The court found that the facts of this case indicated that N.C. believed he was in custody during the questioning, as he was taken from class by the SRO, placed in a room with the door closed, and was never told that he had the right to leave. According to the court, the facts indicated that N.C. believed the questioning was only a school discipline proceeding, as he was never told otherwise. The court held that based on the circumstances surrounding the questioning, N.C. was in custody, and thus should have been given Miranda warnings.
The Kentucky Supreme Court recognized that maintaining discipline in school is of great importance, but observed that the school’s interest in maintaining an appropriate and safe school environment must be balanced against a child’s constitutional rights anytime the juvenile justice system is involved. The court created somewhat of a bright line rule by ruling that school personnel may question a student freely when the matter concerns school discipline or safety alone, but when law enforcement is involved, or a school official is working in concert with law enforcement, and statements from the student may be used in criminal proceedings against the student, the student must be given Miranda warnings.