You probably know that police officers are supposed to advise arrested suspects of their Miranda rights before questioning them. But you might not know whether school administrators have to provide these warnings to students suspected of wrongdoing.
The Miranda warning is supposed to give effect to the Fifth Amendment, which protects against self-incrimination. If law enforcement agents don't give a proper Miranda warning or they otherwise violate Miranda requirements, the defendant's statements and anything learned directly from them may be inadmissible in court.
To trigger the right to a Miranda warning, the suspect must be in custody (reasonably feel unable to leave) and subjected to interrogation (conduct intended or likely to induce an incriminating response).
Courts apply more scrutiny to police interrogation of minors than that of adults. They carefully look not only for the Miranda advisement, but also for evidence of physical or psychological coercion, and indications that the juvenile actually understood the Miranda warning and appreciated the seriousness of the situation.
Juveniles who are questioned at school are generally considered to be "in custody" in the sense that they don't feel free to end the interrogation and leave. So, police officers who interrogate students at school frequently must advise them of their right to silence.
The more interesting issue is what happens when school officials do the questioning. The student surely doesn't feel free to leave, so isn't a warning required? Not unless school staff is questioning the student at the request of or in concert with law enforcement.
Juvenile Miranda rights were recently under review in a Kentucky Supreme Court case. (N.C. v. Com., 396 S.W.3d 852 (Ky. 2013).) The case involved a high school teacher finding an empty prescription pain bottle on a bathroom floor. The assistant principal and a deputy sheriff assigned to the high school guided the student whose name appeared on the bottle to a school office, where they questioned the student without advising him of his Miranda rights. He admitted to giving prescription pain medication to another student.
Prosecutors charged the student in juvenile court with illegally possessing and dispensing a controlled substance. He entered a conditional guilty plea; the judge sentenced him to 45 days in jail and community service.
In considering the case, the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed the principle that when the matter concerns school discipline or safety alone, school personnel may question a student freely. But when a school official is working in concert with law enforcement and the government might use the student's statements in juvenile criminal proceedings, statements obtained without a Miranda warning are generally inadmissible. The court therefore found that a Miranda violation had occurred.
Whether or not school officials are involved, juveniles are free to waive their Miranda rights—if they understand them. If a student elects to waive the right to silence and gives an incriminating response, a reviewing court won't automatically admit the statement (or evidence flowing from it) into evidence. The prosecution must first establish that the child understood the gravity of the situation and freely decided to speak up.
Courts look closely at of the facts and circumstances of a juvenile's waiver of rights to determine if was "voluntary, knowing, and intelligent," including:
If you were or your child was subjected to interrogation by school officials, police officers, or both, consider consulting an experienced juvenile defense attorney. Such a lawyer can full apprise you of the law, analyze your case, and protect your or your child's rights.
And for more information on juvenile proceedings, see The Juvenile Justice System.