Sunday, November 7, 2010
In 2005, a 13-year-old seventh grade special education student from North Carolina was suspected of a crime. The police went to his school to question him about a string of neighborhood burglaries. The police were informed that the student had a digital camera that had been removed from one of the homes.
The student was escorted from his class into a conference room, where he was interrogated by a police investigator in the presence of the school security officer, the assistant principal, and a school intern. His parents were not contacted, and he was not given any warnings about his constitutional rights, such as the right to remain silent or to have an attorney present during questioning.
The student confessed to the burglaries and was arrested. Attorneys for the student sought to throw his confession out, suggesting that the “schoolhouse” interview was really a custodial interrogation.
The 1966 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Miranda v. Arizona held that statements made in response to questioning while in police custody will be admissible at trial only if the prosecution can show that the suspect was informed of the right to consult with or have an attorney present during questioning and the suspect was informed of the right to remain silent prior to questioning. The prosecution must also show that the suspect not only understood the rights, but voluntarily waived those rights.
The North Carolina juvenile court ruled that Miranda did not apply. The student was not in police custody. The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed, “This court adheres to the view that the custody inquiry states an objective rule designed to give clear guidance to the police.”
An adult accused of a crime who is invited to the police department for questioning and who at some point is detained by police must be Mirandized, read his rights, prior to continued questioning. The North Carolina Supreme Court does not think that a learning disabled, 13-year-old is entitled to the same protections.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the student’s appeal. Although this case seems to beg for correction, don’t expect the high court to jump in and change the law in favor of an accused. The court has decided three Miranda cases in the last year, and none has favored those accused of crimes.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided Florida v. Powell, wherein the court found that ambiguous warnings were sufficient. In Maryland v. Shatzer, the court ruled that even after a suspect invoked her right to counsel, investigators could, after a 14-day hiatus, re-establish contact to further pursue interrogation. In Berghuis v. Thompkins, the court ruled that a suspect must specifically and unambiguously invoke his to right to remain silent; silence itself is not sufficient.
High Court decisions
Anthony J. Franze, co-counsel for the defendant in Florida v. Powell, examined the three Supreme Court decisions in a recent article for the Harvard Law & Policy Review. Franze suggested the following to emphasize how Miranda is evolving: The police can take an individual into custody, read him an ambiguous Miranda warning (Powell), and then question him for hours without a lawyer present. If the suspect does not speak up and unambiguously invoke his right to counsel or right to remain silent, police can persistently question him and use even a single, terse, one-word response after hours of questioning as an implicit knowing and voluntary waiver of his rights (Berghuis). If, by chance, the suspect does unambiguously invoke his rights, the police can release him for 14 days and then pick him up on day 15 to begin the entire interrogation process anew (Shatzer).
The U.S. Supreme Court has clearly moved to the right on the issue of Miranda. It will be interesting to see how the court rules on the North Carolina case. Parents entrust their children’s safety and well being to the administration and staff of their respective schools. Is it unreasonable for parents to expect that their children’s fundamental constitutional rights will also be protected?
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