LMPD :: Louisville Metro Police Department

Kentucky students must be read Miranda rights at school if police are present

Ky. justices: Officer's presence, custody key


The Miranda warning

"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense."


Kentucky students must be given Miranda warnings - that they have right to remain silent and to have a lawyer - if they are interviewed by principals with a school officer present, a divided state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In a 4-3 opinion that dissenting justices warned could endanger school safety, the court held that a statement from a Nelson County student who admitted giving two pills to another student must be suppressed because he was not read his rights first.

The student, identified as N.C., was convicted of illegally dispensing a controlled substance and sentenced to 45 days in jail.

Writing for the majority, Justice Mary Noble acknowledged that the case presented "far-reaching questions" and a conflict between "the rights of a juvenile accused of a crime and the needs of school officials to maintain order ... and protect other children."

But the court held that incriminating statements must be suppressed when a school official is working with police and the student is in custody when questioned.

Tim Arnold, the post-trial division director for the Department of Public Advocacy, which represented the student, said the court struck a balance between protecting the rights of students and that of principals to maintain school discipline - while keeping them from becoming "stalking horses for police."

"We are very pleased," he said.

The court said Miranda rights don't have to be read when only school discipline is involved.

But Wayne Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, said it is hard for school officials to foresee that incidents might turn into a criminal matter.

"It will put our folks in the position of having to make tough calls," said Young, who warned "they may be a little paralyzed."

In his dissent, Justice Bill Cunningham said he fears that principals and assistants, to avoid running afoul of the opinion, won't use school resource officers, making investigations less effective and posing a risk to the principals' safety.

"The majority's insistence that keeping the peace in schools does not require the participation of law enforcement is a faulty assumption ... rooted in the nostalgia of a more innocent time when school discipline was all about ... throwing paper wads and erasers, bathroom graffiti and playing hooky," Cunningham wrote in an opinion joined by Justice Daniel Venters.

They also disputed that a student is in custody just because he is questioned by a principal with a school officer present.

"The presence of a school resource officer, who by law must be a certified law-enforcement officer, does not make it a custodial interrogation any more than the presence of a priest would have made it a church service," the dissenters wrote.

Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson and Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. noted in a concurring opinion that, under the public-safety exception, students can be questioned without being Mirandized to find a gun that may have been left on school property.

The case began in 2009 when a Nelson County High School teacher found an empty prescription pain pill bottle on a restroom floor with a student's name on it.

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

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

Campbell, now the Nelson County sheriff, charged N.C., who was later convicted, with his sentence contingent on the outcome of his appeal.

The Supreme Court said the decision hinged on whether N.C. was in custody, and it concluded that he was clearly was - he was interviewed in a closed room with an armed police officer sitting across from him.

"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," the court said.

It also said N.C. was never told he faced criminal charges or that any statement he made could be used against him.

"If he had been an adult under these same circumstances, there is no question that the statements would not have been admissible under Miranda," Noble wrote for the court.

She was joined by Justice Michelle Keller, Abramson and Minton. Venter also wrote a separate dissent joined by Cunningham and Scott in which they said the statements should not be excluded because the defendant was a juvenile.

Juvenile law is designed to "improve the condition of trouble youths," they said, and should not be sacrificed under the "dubious" notion that excluding illegally obtained evidence deters future misconduct by police officers.