It’s that magical time of year again when students of all ages start heading back to school. Some will find themselves enthralled with an exciting class; some will find new successes on the athletic field; and still others will find themselves in the less enviable position of being questioned by police while on school grounds. But for those unfortunate enough to end up in the latter group, the interrogations may start off a little differently this year, thanks to a recent ruling by the nation’s highest court.
It’s been 45 years since the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Miranda vs. Arizona, holding that suspects who have been arrested or who are held in custody must be advised of their basic rights, particularly that they have the right to remain silent and to obtain an attorney. This abbreviated list of legal protections – commonly known as one’s “Miranda rights” – must now be read to anyone who is in police custody, and failure to do so can often nullify any incriminating statements that follow.
But just what does it mean to be “in custody?” Historically, the Court has looked at whether a “reasonable person” under the circumstances would feel free to end the questioning and leave. If the answer is 'no,' then a Miranda warning is in order. But does that definition change for children in school, where an understanding of the law is still being developed and where the freedom to walk away from an interrogation is dubious at best?
Until recently there had been no extra weight given to the suspect’s age when making this determination, even as law enforcement’s presence inside schools has grown substantially. But this summer the Court changed that after taking up a case involving a 13-year old student from North Carolina who was suspected of a pair of local burglaries. Police removed him from his middle school class and interrogated him for more than half an hour, never reading him his Miranda rights or giving him the opportunity to call his legal guardian. After intensive questioning and prodding from school officials and the police, the student eventually confessed. Only then was he told that he was free to leave the room, and he was subsequently arrested.

The ACLU filed an amicus brief arguing that a suspect’s age should be an appropriate factor for consideration when determining custody, and by a narrow margin of 5-to-4, the Supreme Court agreed. In its ruling, the Court stated that “[i]t is beyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave,” and there is no reason for “police officers or courts to blind themselves to that commonsense reality.”
This was a welcome recognition from the Court, but it is still unclear what its practical impact will be. The justices did not go as far as to say that all suspects under the age of 18 must be read their Miranda rights, only that age should be considered as a factor when making such a judgment. (In fact, they did not even rule on whether the student in question should have been Mirandized; they simply remanded the case back to the lower court for fresh analysis under the new guideline.)

Still, as students return to the classroom this fall they will do so with a little extra protection when dealing with police. Going forward, as law enforcement and schools become increasingly intertwined, it is extra important that the rights of students continue to be protected. Hopefully as schools open their doors for the new year, this ruling will serve as a reminder of just that.