August 28, 2011

STUDENTS WILL NOT be the only ones trying to make sense of new material as the school year begins. Teachers, administrators, school resource officers and law enforcements officials will also be faced with a new assignment: determining whether minors who get into trouble and are questioned by law enforcement officers at school should be informed of their Miranda rights.

Typically, suspects who are arrested on criminal charges are read their rights, which include the right to remain silent and the right to a lawyer. But Miranda warnings may also be required in situations that fall short of an arrest, when, for example, a “reasonable person” would believe that he is in police custody and unable to leave. The age of the suspect has never been a factor in making this determination.

The Supreme Court changed the rules this summer in a case involving a 13-year-old North Carolina student who had been seen in the back yard of a home that had been burglarized. Days after the incident, a police officer questioned the minor in a closed-door interrogation at school that included a school official. The minor’s guardian was not told of the session, and the child was not informed of his Miranda rights. The boy confessed and was later hit with juvenile delinquency charges.

The court concluded that although there was no arrest and the interrogation took place in a school and not a police station, the boy was essentially in custody since it was likely he did not believe he could leave or refuse to answer the officer’s questions. He also may not have realized that his statements exposed him to criminal sanctions. The justices ruled that the police officer should have taken the boy’s age into account when determining whether Miranda rights were in order. “[A] reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the five-justice majority.

The decision has caused some confusion because the court did not draw a bright line or direct law enforcement officials to read Miranda rights in all circumstances involving suspects under the age of 18. Critics say that by injecting age into the calculation the Supreme Court has muddied the waters about when Miranda rights are required. The ruling is particularly tricky when school resource officers — who can be school-based uniformed police officers — are involved.

But decisions about when to read rights have always been judgment calls; adding age to the mix of factors is a modest but important step to ensure that minors are not intimidated or improperly manipulated into incriminating themselves.

Children are different from adults. The Supreme Court has in other contexts concluded that children cannot be viewed as “mini adults” under the law because they lack the maturity and foresight to understand the full consequences of their actions. The same holds true when they are considered suspects and are being questioned by law enforcement officers.

What has largely been lost in the confusion is that the court rightly preserved the authority of teachers and administrators to glean information from students to ensure order and safety in the school. School officials do not have to read Miranda warnings or wait for police officers before they question students about a weapon or contraband on school property — even though such revelations could eventually lead to legal action. School officials, after all, are not in the law enforcement business; their first priority must be to ensure the safety of the students entrusted to their care. The court’s decision does nothing to undermine that.