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Teen had to be read his rights even if school cop was silent 

 

A 13-year-old who was interrogated by his school’s principal in the presence of the school’s police officer should have been read his Miranda rights even though the police officer remained silent throughout the questioning, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has unanimously ruled. 

In March 2019, Deputy William Sechrist, the school resource officer for Gentry Middle School in Mount Airy, learned that a student—dubbed “Daniel” by the court—had been caught possessing marijuana on the school bus. Sechrist escorted Daniel to the principal’s office and told him to wait to speak until his father arrived. Daniel ultimately said he’d bought the weed from a fellow student, 13-year-old “Deacon.” 

Deacon didn’t come to school the next two days, but when he returned, he was called to the principal’s office. The principal handled the questioning, and Sechrist, who was in uniform, sat next to the principal on one side of the table, facing Deacon. Sechrist testified that the principal asked Deacon to tell them what had happened, and Deacon admitted he’d sold Daniel marijuana. After the principal asked some more questions, Deacon’s grandmother was called. At no point was Deacon read his Miranda rights or told that he didn’t have to answer any questions and was free to leave.  

Several months later, a juvenile petition was filed accusing Deacon of selling a controlled substance. He moved to suppress his statements to the principal, but Surry County District Court Judge Marion M. Boone denied the motion. Deacon appealed, arguing that his statements were inadmissible as his confession was obtained in violation of his Miranda rights. 

Judge Darren Jackson, writing for the court in an April 20 opinion, agreed that the trial court had failed to apply the appropriate legal principles, remanding the case for additional proceedings. 

“The circumstances here were that Deacon, a 13-year-old suspect in a criminal investigation, was called out of class to be questioned in the principal’s office alongside the SRO; was neither told he was free to leave nor that he did not have to answer questions; and was not provided the option of contacting his guardian until after he had already confessed,” Jackson wrote.  

“The trial court was required to take these circumstances into account to determine whether a reasonable 13-year-old in Deacon’s position would have felt free to terminate the encounter and leave. There is no indication in the trial court’s order that it considered or applied this standard.” 

‘Unique Miranda considerations’ at school 

The basic holding of the seminal U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miranda v. Arizona requires that “when an individual is taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom by the authorities in any significant way and is subjected to questioning, the privilege against self-incrimination is jeopardized,” Jackson said, and thus, “procedural safeguards must be employed.” Just like adults, juveniles are entitled to receive Miranda warnings prior to in-custody interrogations to protect their right against self-incrimination. 

Jackson also noted that the state has established statutory protections for juveniles found at N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-2101, such as the right to have a parent, guardian, or custodian present during questioning. Even greater protections are provided under the Juvenile Code for those younger than 16, but all of these protections are triggered only when the juvenile is subjected to a custodial interrogation. 

Jackson considered prior case law in an effort to define the boundaries of a custodial interrogation in the context of a schoolhouse, which presents “unique Miranda considerations.” A student simply being questioned by a principal wouldn’t generally qualify as a custodial interrogation, but a student being questioned by an SRO certainly could. 

“When a student is interrogated in the presence of an SRO—even when the SRO remains silent—the presence of the officer can create a coercive environment that goes above and beyond the restrictions normally imposed during school, such that a reasonable student would readily believe they are not free to go,” Jackson wrote. “This holding recognizes the ‘reality that courts cannot simply ignore’—that juveniles are uniquely susceptible to police pressure and may feel compelled to confess when a reasonable adult would not.” 

The presence of an SRO “weighs heavily on the scale” when determining whether what otherwise might appear to be a voluntary encounter is instead a custodial interrogation, Jackson added, although it isn’t dispositive. 

There are two considerations involved when evaluating whether a Miranda warning is required: whether the suspect was in custody and whether the statement was made in the context of an interrogation. Seven factors are “most relevant” in determining whether a juvenile is in custody in the context of a schoolhouse interview: the traditional indicia of arrest, the location of the interview, the length of the interview, the student’s age, what the student is told about the interview, the people present during the interview, and the purposes of the questioning. 

As for whether the juvenile was subject to an interrogation, the most relevant factors are the nature of the questions asked (interrogative or mandatory), the willingness of the juvenile’s responses, and the extent of the SRO’s involvement. 

Silent but coercive 

Applying these factors to the circumstances, Jackson said Deacon’s questioning amounted to a custodial interrogation.  

“We hold that, under these circumstances, no reasonable 13-year-old would have felt free to leave,” Jackson wrote. “Even before any questions were asked, it appeared that this interview was for purposes of a criminal investigation rather than a mere disciplinary matter.” 

The two authority figures sat together opposite Deacon, with Sechrist in his uniform, and Deacon wasn’t told that he was free to go, that he didn’t have to answer questions, or that he could call his grandmother. 

Turning to the interrogation factors, Jackson found that the questioning was of a nature that the two authority figures should have known was likely to elicit an incriminating response from Deacon, highlighting the differential treatment of Deacon as compared to Daniel. 

Daniel’s father was immediately contacted and he was told to wait to speak until his father arrived. No questions were asked until after his father arrived. 

“In contrast, Deacon was not advised to keep quiet until his guardian arrived, and Deacon’s guardian was not even contacted until after he had confessed,” Jackson said. “This unequal treatment underscores that the purpose of interviewing Deacon was to conduct a criminal investigation, not to investigate whether he had broken a school rule about absences.” 

Jackson concluded that the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress Deacon’s confession, in ruling that the questioning did not amount to a custodial interrogation and in concluding that Deacon was not entitled to the protections of the Fifth Amendment or N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-2101. 

Assistant Appellate Defender Jillian C. Katz represented Deacon.  

“We are very happy with this decision and the opinion’s comprehensive look at how Miranda works in the school environment,” Katz said in an emailed statement. “It’s an important issue. The court’s opinion is very instructive and could be very helpful going forward.” 

Vanessa N. Totten represented the state. Laura Brewer, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, said the office was “unable to comment on this ongoing litigation.” 

The 39-page decision is In the Matter of D.A.H. (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-049-21). The full text of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com. 


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