Students must be informed of their legal rights - including the right to remain silent - before being questioned by school administrators working with police or school resource officers, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday in throwing out an incriminating statement in a drug case.
The ruling, issued by a deeply divided court, sets a bright-line rule for school officials pursuing both disciplinary action and possible criminal charges on school grounds.
The case centers on the arrest of a Nelson County student identified in court records only as N.C., who was charged with a drug offense after sharing prescription hydrocodone with a classmate at school.
Police charged "N.C." after a school administrator and officer questioned him about the medication and he admitted to giving a pill to a classmate. Justice Mary Noble wrote that because of the presence of the police officer and the lack of warning about possible criminal charges, the student should have been informed of his rights, commonly known as a Miranda warning.
"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, of that he was even admitting criminal responsibility under these circumstances," Noble wrote.
Justices Bill Cunningham and Daniel Venters dissented. Cunningham said the high court overturned the conviction of "N.C." without citing another similar case from any other state.
Cunningham said the presence of a school resource officer during questioning doesn't make the situation a custodial interview requiring a recitation of constitutional rights. Once a student arrives on campus, he or she cannot leave during the school day, the justice wrote.
"A student in a public school is always in 'custody'," Cunningham wrote. "The student is not 'free' to leave at any time after he or she arrives at school - in math class, in the hallway or cafeteria. The nature of the setting is continuous 'custody'."
Venters, joined by Cunningham and justice Will T. Scott, said the court should have taken Cunningham's logic further, striking down the use of admissions only to deter reckless or grossly negligent police conduct and in cases where it is obvious the statement was involuntary or under circumstances that cast doubt upon its reliability.