There is an interesting case out of Fairfax County in Virginia where an eighth-grader was pulled from his class and interrogated by a police officer and school officials on this smoking pot after-school hours and off campus. The case shows the continuing uncertainty over when police officers are required to give Miranda after the Supreme Court’s decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina (below).
An assistant principal at Langston Hughes Middle School called in the student after other students said that they heard him taking about smoking pot during off-hours. The school officials called in a police officer and interrogated the student without the presence or consent of his parents. It has striking similarities to J.D.B., where a seventh-grader was interviewed by police and school officials about a residential break-in. In the majority decision, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor held that a child’s age could change the meaning of when a person is in custody — triggering the need for Miranda: “to hold… that a child’s age is never relevant to whether a suspect has been taken into custody— and thus to ignore the very real differences between children and adults— would be to deny children the full scope of the procedural safeguards that Miranda guarantees to adults.”
The problem with the opinion is that it quickly breaks down in generalities and leaves a host of questions. For example, police officers are increasingly assigned full-time to schools and are used in a myriad of disciplinary cases. As in the Virginia case, most of these investigations are not done as a criminal matter, but could ultimately prove to be a criminal matter depending on what the child says in the interview. If the intention is not to acquire evidence of a crime but to “get to the bottom” of a school incident, is Miranda still required? The assumption is that the Court would likely cut officials a fair degree of deference when this next generation of cases works back to the Court.
The protection of Miranda is not particularly significant for a child. It is likely that, even when informed of his rights, a child is likely to waive his rights in the presence of school officials and officers. The key is to have the parent present. It is astonishing to me that school officials would not insist on parents being present as a matter of simple policy. Most of these case involve no urgency. Most parents would likely still tell their child to answer truthfully and fully. Yet, school officials are facilitating a highly coercive environment by using their offices as an interrogation room with police officers.
These cases also show the continuing trend of school officials extending their authority to cover acts committed outside of school. I have been critical of that trend, which includes actions against both students and teachers. Schools also seem to be increasingly turning to police to handle disciplinary issues, resulting in arrests of children for acts that were once simple matters for a parent-teacher conference.
In the Virginia case, no criminal charges were brought but the school officials were unaware of what the boy might say to trigger such charges. The resistance of the school officials to the minimal protections of Miranda or presence of parents is disturbing. It shows a lack of concern of the rights of these students. While officials continue cite the well-being of students as the justification for their actions, they never seem to include a student’s rights in the overall concern for his well-being. The Sotomayor decision is likely to unleash a torrent of cases probing the line of these protections. It would be wonderful, however, if school officials would act in a more protective fashion as a simple matter of ethics as opposed to constitutional law.
Here is the J.D.B. decision: 09-11121
Source: Washington Post