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Miranda in the School Setting

- by Jack Ryan
Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute

A question is often raised as to whether a student in school must be given Miranda warnings prior to being questioned in school.  As a short answer, the first thing that must be determined is who has asked the questions.  Miranda warnings never have to be given unless the subject of the questioning is in custody.  Custody for Miranda purposes is not the same as seizure under the 4th Amendment.  In many cases a person may be seized but will not be entitled to Miranda warnings.i  Custody for Miranda purposes occurs when the person is subject to the circumstances normally associated with a formal arrest.  The majority of courts have concluded that a school official’s questioning is not custody for Miranda purposes since the subject is not faced with the circumstances normally associated with a formal arrest.   In cases where a school resource officer has asked the questions, the answer will depend on whether the subject is in custody at the time the questions are asked.  It should be noted that if the school official acts as an agent of law enforcement then the school official will be treated as law enforcement for Miranda purposes.

Tennessee v. R.D.S.ii provides an example of a case where a student was questioned by a School Resource officer but was not in custody at the time of the questioning.  The facts in the case involved a student showing up for a class that appeared to be intoxicated.  The student was brought to the principal’s office where he was questioned regarding his condition.  The principal called for the SRO to assist in this investigation.  During the course of the questioning, the student indicated that he had missed classes earlier in the day because he had been in R.D.S.’ vehicle in the parking lot.  He indicated that his condition was the result of drinking a half bottle of cough medicine prior to coming to school hours earlier.

As a result of this questioning, the principal and the SRO located R.D.S. and informed him of the fact that another student had reported that he had been in R.D.S.’ truck and therefore the truck would be searched.  The SRO reported that she invited R.D.S. to come to the truck and observe.  In testimony, she repeatedly emphasized that she invited R.D.S. to come to the truck and had not ordered him to come to the truck.  On the way to the truck, the SRO asked R.D.S. if he had anything in the truck that did not belong there and further informed him that he would be responsible for anything in the truck.  Once the search began, marijuana was found.  R.D.S. made statements indicating that the marijuana was his.   Upon returning to the office, he acknowledged that he and the other student had left school grounds and smoked marijuana earlier in the day. At trial, he tried to have these statements suppressed. 

In refusing to suppress the statements, the court focused on the manner in which the SRO spoke to the student.  The SRO framed her request that the student come to the car as an invitation rather than an order.  As such the court found that custody for Miranda purposes had not occurred and thus the statements could come into evidence.  

Washington v. D.J.iii  provides an example of the difference in who conducts the questioning.  In D.J., school officials were called via radio be a school bus driver indicating that there was a problem on the bus.  When the bus arrived at East Lake High School, school officials and the school resource officer were waiting.  Two school officials approached the 4 problem students in the back of the bus while the SRO waited in the front.  The school officials smelled alcohol on the foursome and ordered them to the principal’s office.  The assistant principal took the students into the office one at a time and interviewed them.  The school resource officer waited outside with the other students.  While waiting, the SRO posed some general questions to D.J. who he knew.  D.J. answered the questions in general terms.  Once D.J. was brought to the assistant principal’s office and questioned he made admissions concerning drinking alcohol.  D.J. argued that these statements should be suppressed as custodial interrogation without proper Miranda warnings.

In rejecting D.J.’s argument, the court asserted: “Here, although D.J. was detained by the assistant principal about the disturbance on the bus, D.J. was not in police custody to a degree associated with formal arrest. There is also no evidence that Officer Chapin detained D.J. or conducted a custodial interview. According to the undisputed findings, Assistant Principal Ellis and Associate Principal Patterson told D.J. and three other students to get off the school bus after learning about a fight and smoking on the bus, and after smelling alcohol as they approached four students. Ellis, Patterson, and Officer Chapin then walked with the four students to the waiting room of the principal's office. While Assistant Principal Ellis questioned the first student, Officer Chapin waited with D.J. and the two other students… Assistant Principal Ellis interviewed D.J. alone, outside the presence of Officer Chapin, to determine what happened during the incident on the school bus and whether there were violations of the school rules. As the assistant principal, Ellis has a duty to maintain order and discipline at the school and enforce the school rules. D.J. cites no authority holding a school official, under these circumstances, must advise a student of their Miranda rights before questioning about suspected violations of school rules or policies.”


i See e.g. Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 (1984).

ii Tennessee v. R.D.S., 2006 Tenn. App. LEXIS 733 (Ct. App. TN  2006).

iii State v. D.J., 2006 Wash. App. LEXIS 913  (Ct. App. Washington 2006)


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