Miranda Rights for Students at School

School interrogations sometimes require Miranda warnings. Learn when they do, and when they don't.

By , Attorney · Golden Gate University School of Law

You probably know that police officers are supposed to advise arrested suspects of their Miranda rights before questioning them. But you might not know that in some circumstances, Miranda warnings aren't required when kids are questioned at school. Read on to find out who has to give Miranda advisements, and under what circumstances they have to give them to students at school.

Juveniles and Miranda

The Miranda warning is supposed to give effect to the Fifth Amendment, which protects against self-incrimination. If law enforcement officers don't give a proper Miranda warning or otherwise violate Miranda requirements, the suspect's statements and anything learned directly from them, are usually inadmissible in court, unless an exception applies.

Miranda applies to juveniles just as it does to adults. So, if Miranda warnings were required but not provided before a juvenile was questioned, the minor's statement generally can't be used to prove the state's case, absent an exception.

But interrogating a juvenile in school raises questions about when Miranda warnings are required, and by whom.

Can Minors Be Interrogated at School?

Officers and school administrators can, and often do, question juveniles at school. The real question is, do they have to give them Miranda warnings first?

As with so many legal questions, the answer is, it depends. Miranda warnings are required when someone is subject to "custodial interrogation." Custodial interrogation means questioning initiated by law enforcement officers while the person is in custody. (Illinois v. Perkins, 496 U.S. 292, 296.) This rule sounds simple enough, but as it turns out, whether someone is "in custody" and subject to police interrogation can be complicated.

Are Juveniles in Custody When the Police Question Them at School?

A person doesn't have to be in jail or in handcuffs to be in custody. Someone is in custody if a "reasonable person" (essentially, the average person) in the suspect's shoes would not feel free to end the interrogation and leave.

Courts use a "totality of the circumstances" test to determine if someone is in custody. In addition to many other factors, a court will consider how old the juvenile was when the questioning occurred. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that children often feel that they have to answer police questions in situations where an adult would understand they were free to leave. The younger the child, the more likely they are to think they have to submit to police questioning.

Some courts have found that a juvenile is in custody when the police question them in the principal's office or another closed-off location at school. But this isn't always the case. When other factors suggest that someone in the student's position would have believed they could leave the room or office, courts have found that they were not in custody. For example, if an officer tells the minor they're not under arrest, don't have to answer questions, or can leave if they want to, some courts have found the juvenile was not in custody.

(J.B.D. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011); Fare v. Michael C. (1979) 442 U.S. 707, 725; N.C. v. Commonwealth, 396 S.W.3d 852 (Ky. 2013); In re C.H., 763 N.W.2d 708 (Ne. 2009 ); People v. N.A.S., 329 P.3d 285 (Colo. 2014); In re J.H., 928 A.2d 643 (D.C. Ct. App. 2007); In re Tyler F., 755 N.W.2d 360 (Ne. 2008); State v. Loredo, 865 P.2d 1312 (Ore. Ct. App. 1993).)

Can a Principal Interrogate a Juvenile Without Giving Miranda Warnings?

Remember that Miranda applies to questioning by law enforcement. Teachers, principals, and other school administrators aren't normally law enforcement agents, so they're generally free to question students about wrongdoing without giving Miranda warnings. On the other hand, warnings are normally required when a school administrator and an officer question a student together about a crime, so long as the student is in custody.

And in some situations, when an officer is present but only the school administrator is tasking questions, Miranda warnings might be necessary. Consider the facts of one case where a teacher suspected a student of drug possession and took him to the vice principal's office. An armed officer arrived and frisked the juvenile before transporting him in a patrol car to the head principal's office in another building. The officer then remained present while the principal questioned the student at length. In that situation, the principal was considered to be interrogating the student "in concert" with the officer. And, because the officer's conduct would have caused the minor to think he was in police custody, he should have received Miranda warnings.

As the case law shows, whether a student should have received Miranda warnings depends on the unique facts of each case.

(State v. Daniell, 817 S.E.2d 358 (Ct. App. Ga. 2018); D.Z. v. State, 100 N.E.3d 246 (Ind. 2018).)In re K.D.L., 700 S.E.2d 766 (N.C. Ct. App. 2010).)

Can Students Waive Their Miranda Rights?

Juveniles are free to waive (give up) their Miranda rights, so long as they understand those rights and the consequences of waiving them.

A person doesn't have to say out loud that they waive their rights for a court to find a waiver. If they indicate that they understand their rights and then choose to talk to the police anyway, courts often find waiver. (North Carolina v. Butler, 441 U.S. 369, 376 (1979).)

But that's not the end of the story. If the waiver wasn't "voluntary, knowing, and intelligent," the statements are generally inadmissible (absent an exception).

Similar to the "in custody" determination, courts use a totality of the circumstances test to decide if a Miranda waiver was voluntary. Here are some of the factors courts often consider when deciding if a juvenile voluntarily waived their rights:

  • the juvenile's age, education level, and intelligence
  • the juvenile's emotional characteristics and state of mind at the time of questioning
  • whether the juvenile had any experience with the criminal justice system
  • the time of day
  • the length and tone of questioning
  • any physical coercion, punishment, deceit, or offers of leniency, and
  • whether a parent or guardian was present.

As these factors suggest, the question of whether a minor voluntarily waived their Miranda rights will depend on the specific facts of each case.

Consult a Lawyer

If your child was questioned by or in the presence of police officers about suspected wrongdoing, talk with a local criminal defense attorney with experience in juvenile delinquency law. An attorney should be able to advise you of important steps to take to protect your child's rights. If a delinquency petition has been filed against your child, an experienced attorney can guide you through the court process, assess the case for possible defenses and weaknesses, and provide advice on the possible outcomes.

And for more information on juvenile proceedings, see The Juvenile Justice System.

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