Appeals Court Tosses Drug Case Against N.C. Middle Schooler Who Wasnít Read His Rights | Beaufort County Now | A unanimous three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals has thrown out a drug case against a 13-year-old Mount Airy middle school student.

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Appeals Court Tosses Drug Case Against N.C. Middle Schooler Who Wasnít Read His Rights

Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of the Carolina Journal. The author of this post is CJ Staff.

    A unanimous three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals has thrown out a drug case against a 13-year-old Mount Airy middle school student. The judges agreed authorities should have read the student his Miranda rights before he confessed.

    The case, referred to as In the matter of D.A.H., stems from a March 2019 incident at Gentry Middle School. When a school bus driver spotted one male student on a bus with 0.7 grams of marijuana, that student admitted to the principal and school resource officer that he had bought the drug on school property from a classmate.

    The alleged seller was absent from school the next two days. He was summoned to the principal's office upon his return. With no parent or guardian present, the principal questioned the student. The SRO was in the room but asked no questions, according to court records.

    The student, referred to in court documents as "Deacon," admitted to the drug sale. Two months later, authorities filed a juvenile petition against him with the charge of selling drugs. In August, Deacon's attorney moved to suppress the confession, "arguing that his statements to Principal Whitaker were inadmissible as his confession was obtained in violation of his Miranda rights," according to the court opinion.

    A judge rejected the motion, and "Deacon was ultimately adjudicated delinquent for the sale and delivery of marijuana."

    "This case presents a unique issue regarding the nature and extent of a juvenile's right to receive Miranda warnings in the context of a school interrogation," Judge Darren Jackson wrote for the Appeals Court.

    "It is well-established that juveniles, just like adults, are entitled to receive Miranda warnings prior to in-custody interrogations in order to protect their right against self-incrimination," Jackson added.

    Schoolhouse interviews offer "unique Miranda considerations" since students lose some freedoms when they step onto school property. But they don't lose all rights.

    "Today we harmonize our prior opinions on this issue in light of the United States Supreme Court's holding ... and the holdings of our sister courts in other states," Jackson wrote. "There can be no doubt that educators and law enforcement are increasing their collaboration in the school setting and that school officials are increasingly becoming active participants in the criminal justice system."

    "While potentially warranted for both the educational and safety needs of our children, this cooperation must be consistent with the Fifth Amendment's guarantee against self-incrimination," Jackson added. "As the United States Supreme Court recognized in J.D.B., the Fifth Amendment requires that minors under criminal investigation be protected against making coerced, inculpatory statements, even when — and perhaps, in some cases, particularly because — they are on school property. Increased cooperation between educators and law enforcement cannot allow the creation of situations where no Miranda warnings are required just because a student is on school property."

    Jackson and his colleagues considered the impact of a uniformed police officer's presence during Deacon's interview. "We agree that 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. 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."

    Another key factor was the absence of a parent or guardian during the interview. When authorities questioned the student caught with marijuana, he had been advised not to speak to the principal until his parent arrived. Authorities treated Deacon differently.

    "It was not until after Deacon made this confession that his guardian was contacted, and at no point was he told that he was free to leave or to refuse to answer questions," Jackson wrote. "We hold that this amounted to a custodial interrogation and that the trial court erred in concluding otherwise and denying the motion to suppress."

    The ruling overturns the finding of "delinquency" for the on-campus drug sale.
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