Students must be informed of their legal rights — including the right to remain silent — before being questioned by school administrators working with police or school resource officers, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday in throwing out an incriminating statement in a drug case.
The ruling, issued by a deeply divided court, sets a clear guideline for school officials pursuing both disciplinary action and possible criminal charges on school grounds.
The case centers on the arrest of a Nelson County student identified in court records only as N.C., who was charged with a drug offense after sharing prescription hydrocodone with a classmate at school.
Police charged N.C. after a school administrator and officer questioned him about the medication and he admitted to giving a pill to a classmate. Justice Mary Noble wrote that because of the presence of the police officer and the lack of warning about possible criminal charges, the student should have been informed of his rights, commonly known as a Miranda warning.
"No reasonable student, even the vast majority of 17-year-olds, would have believed that he was at liberty to remain silent, or to leave, or that he was even admitting criminal responsibility under these circumstances," Noble wrote.
Justices Bill Cunningham and Daniel Venters dissented. Cunningham said the high court overturned the conviction without citing another similar case from any other state.
Cunningham said the presence of a school resource officer during questioning doesn't make the situation a custodial interview requiring a recitation of constitutional rights. Once a student arrives on campus, he or she cannot leave during the school day, the justice wrote.
"A student in a public school is always in 'custody,'" Cunningham wrote. "The student is not 'free' to leave at any time after he or she arrives at school — in math class, in the hallway or cafeteria."
Venters, joined by Cunningham and Justice Will T. Scott, said the court should have taken Cunningham's logic further, striking down such admissions by students only when there has been reckless or grossly negligent police conduct and/or when it is obvious the statement was involuntary or under circumstances that cast doubt upon its reliability.
The issue arose in 2008 when an assistant principal at Nelson County High School in Bardstown found an empty prescription pill bottle for hydrocodone, a derivative of opium used to treat pain, with the name of N.C. on it on a boys' restroom floor. After a short investigation, the administrator removed N.C. from class and took him to an office, then closed the door.
After being told where the bottle was found, N.C. admitted to giving two pills to a friend who recently had wisdom teeth removed. The assistant principal told N.C. that he was subject to school discipline, and the school resource officer told N.C. he would be charged with a crime. N.C. was later expelled from school.