Morning Newsletter

Miranda rights for students considered

FRANKFORT— The Kentucky Supreme Court is considering a case that would require school officials to read Miranda rights to students being questioned.

The case out of Nelson County was argued in October and could be decided later this month, according to The Courier-Journal.

It stems from a 2009 incident in which a teacher at Nelson County High School in Bardstown found an empty prescription pain pill bottle on a restroom floor with a student's name on it.

School resource officer Stephen Campbell, an armed deputy sheriff, and Nelson County Assistant Principal Mike Glass escorted that student to Glass' office, where he was questioned with the door closed.

The student, identified only as N.C., admitted that he brought three pills from home because he'd had his wisdom teeth pulled and was in pain, and that he gave two pills to another student.

Campbell, now Nelson County sheriff, charged N.C. with illegally dispensing a controlled substance. He was prosecuted in juvenile court and sentenced to 45 days in adult jail, contingent on outcome of his appeal, in which he argues his statement should have been suppressed because he wasn't given a Miranda warning.

Miranda rights come from a 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision that involved police questioning of Ernesto Miranda in a rape and kidnapping case in Phoenix. It required officers to tell suspects they have the right to remain silent and to have a lawyer represent them, even if they can't afford one.

The U.S. Supreme Court has since ruled that Miranda warnings are required before police interrogations for people who are in custody, which is defined as when a reasonable person would think he cannot end the questioning and leave.

Defending the conviction, Special Prosecutor John S. Kelley said that N.C. admitted giving away the pills during the first minute that he was questioned.

Kelley, an assistant Nelson County attorney, said that the "case at hand was simply a school administrator looking into a possible violation of a school policy" (a rule bars students from carrying prescription drugs) "and not an investigation of criminal activity."

The Nelson County juvenile court overruled N.C.'s motion to suppress, finding that he wasn't in custody and that Campbell was just a witness. The Kentucky Court of Appeals refused to hear the case.

But the state high court's decision comes after the U.S. Supreme Court held 5-4 last year in a case from North Carolina that a child's age must be considered in determining whether he has a right to a Miranda warning.

The Kentucky Department of Education has taken no position on the N.C. case, said spokeswoman Lisa Gross.

Opponents of requiring the warnings in school say administrators have more important things to do.

Simple investigations would be hamstrung and schools would be less safe if principals "must look into a crystal ball and predict, 'This could lead to criminal charges, I have to Mirandize this child,'" said Wayne Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators.

"If a crime is being committed in school, if somebody is handing out pain medication, I don't think we should be troubled with constitutional niceties," he added.

But Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto, litigation director for the Kentucky-based Children's Law Center, said principals routinely "orchestrate" interrogations with police to "streamline" prosecution of students, making it only fair that they be warned of their right to remain silent and obtain counsel.

School safety experts, including Jon Akers, the director of the state 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," said Akers, former principal at Lexington's Byran Station and Dunbar high schools, who denied that principals in Kentucky intentionally collaborate with police to evade Miranda requirements.