The U.S. Supreme Court was asked Wednesday to step into the legal debate over whether students must be informed of their rights before being questioned during an on-campus investigation of school-related activities.
Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway filed a petition with the high court. It seeks to overturn a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling granting students the right to be Mirandized before questioning by school officials if a resource officer is present.
In throwing out a student's conviction for sharing prescription hydrocodone with a classmate at a Nelson County school, the state court concluded that the presence of a school resource officer and the prospect of criminal charges meant the student should have been informed of his rights. That step is 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," Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Mary Noble wrote in April. "If he had been an adult under these same circumstances, there is no question that the statements would not have been admissible under Miranda."
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.
Conway urged the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case because state appellate courts are divided over this issue.
States that hold Miranda warnings are required include Georgia, North Carolina, and now Kentucky. States that hold Miranda warnings are not required include South Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, New York, New Mexico, and Louisiana.
Conway also said the issue presented is recurring and important as the use of law enforcement officers as a resource in the school setting has become widespread over the last 20 years.
Conway said school administrators shouldn't be required to advise students of their rights simply because a school resource officer may be present during an investigation of school-related issues.
Ed Monahan, head of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, which represented N.C., did not immediately return a message Tuesday afternoon.
The U.S. Supreme Court receives more than 10,000 requests to hear cases per term. The justices grant oral arguments in roughly 100 cases per term with formal written opinions issued in 80 to 90 cases. Approximately 50 to 60 additional cases are disposed of without arguments being held.
The issue arose in 2008 when an assistance principal at Nelson County High School in Bardstown found an empty prescription pill bottle for hydrocodone, a derivative of opium used to treat pain, with the name of N.C. on it on the boy's bathroom floor. After a short investigation, the administrator removed the student, identified in court records only as N.C., from class and took him to an office, then closed the door.
After being told where the bottle was found and informed that several pills had been given away, N.C. admitted to giving two pills to a friend who recently had wisdom teeth removed. The assistant principal told N.C. that he was subject to school discipline and the school resource officer told N.C. he would be charged with a crime. N.C. was later expelled from school.
Because he had turned 18 prior to sentencing in 2010, N.C. was sentenced to 45 days in jail, 30 hours of community service, and an additional 27 hours of community service in lieu of court costs. This sentence was stayed pending an appeal in the case.
School officials may still question students for disciplinary reasons, but once law enforcement becomes involved, the student must be informed of their rights.
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