WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- A small boy gets into big trouble, is called into the principal's office and finds a police officer waiting for him.
School officials and the officer want to informally question him about a crime. Is the boy legally in custody? Should courts take his age and the school environment into account to determine whether he is actually in custody? Does he need a lawyer? Does he have Miranda rights and should he be told about them?
The U.S. Supreme Court has promised to decide whether he should.
The image of a child bringing a lawyer into the principal's office might seem comic to most Americans. But for the child and his or her family the issue is deadly serious. It could mean the difference between prosecution and a clear record, between a pressured confession and silence, between detention and freedom.
Schools also have a lot at stake. Do principals and teachers become part of the law enforcement apparatus of the state when questioning students in the wake of a possible crime?
More skeptical critics might say having a lawyer present during the questioning of a student may mean the difference between quickly getting at the truth and obscuring the truth.
Other critics might say if a student in the school environment is not entitled to hear his or her rights, law enforcement may deliberately pick a school setting for interrogations to avoid telling a juvenile suspect of those rights.
In 1966's Miranda vs. Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court said suspects in custody -- or a reasonable custodial situation -- must be advised of their right to remain silent, that anything they say could be used against them and that they have a right to a lawyer.
Once a lawyer is requested, law enforcement can only use statements made in the presence of a lawyer as evidence in any trial.
Last Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of a 13-year-old North Carolina boy accused of two break-ins in Chapel Hill, N.C.
The boy, identified only as J.D.B., was seen with a stolen camera and police went to his school where he was a seventh-grade special education student. The boy was pulled from his classroom and was questioned behind the closed door of a conference room by police officers and school officials. Eventually, the boy confessed to the break-ins.
Only after the confession, the "investigator informed (J.D.B.) that he did not have to speak with him and that he was free to leave," court records said. "He asked him if (he) understood that he was not under arrest and did not have to talk with the investigator. (J.D.B.) indicated by nodding 'yes' that he understood that he did not have to talk to the officer and that he was free to leave. He continued to provide more details regarding where certain (stolen) items could be located."
The boy was then allowed to get on the bus and go home, but a police officer armed with a warrant later searched his home for the stolen items.
The boy's lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence because J.D.B. had not been advised of his Miranda rights, nor had a parent been present during questioning -- something required by state law. But the North Carolina Supreme Court eventually ruled 4-3 last December that despite the circumstances surrounding his interrogation, the 13 year old had not been in "custody" -- a necessary element for invoking Miranda rights.
"The uniquely structured nature of the school environment inherently deprives students of some freedom of action," the state Supreme Court majority ruled. "However, the typical restrictions of the school setting apply to all students and do not constitute a 'significant' deprivation of freedom of action. ... For a student in the school setting to be deemed in custody, law enforcement must subject the student to 'restraint on freedom of movement' that goes well beyond the limitations that are characteristic of the school environment in general."
Justice Edward Brady, one of the three dissenters, called the decision "alarming."
"It is disheartening and alarming that today's majority opinion condones the highly coercive actions of law enforcement in the instant case, which will only encourage law enforcement to disregard the provisions and procedures of (state law protecting Miranda rights) in the future," Brady wrote in his own opinion. "Even radical Muslims suspected of terrorism are afforded broader constitutional protections than the majority wishes to give juveniles in J.D.B.'s position.
In agreeing to review the case, and letting J.D.B. file as a pauper, the U.S. Supreme Court also accepted a friend of the court brief from the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center.
Of course J.D.B. was in custody, the center argued in that brief.
"The North Carolina Supreme Court reasoned that J.D.B. was not in custody because the restrictions of the school environment apply to all students. ... Indeed the student handbook instructs students to stop moving when an adult addresses them and prohibits students from walking away until an adult has dismissed them."
The North Carolina Supreme Court's "reasoning would make it virtually impossible for a court to find that a student in a school setting was ever in custody," the center said. "It would also leave students in a uniquely vulnerable situation in which law enforcement could conduct interrogations at school specifically to avoid complying with the Miranda rule.
"The constitutional test does not ask whether an individual would have felt more free to leave than his or her peers. It asks simply whether a person in that situation would feel free to leave," the friend of the court brief argued. "J.D.B. did not. He was therefore in custody for the purposes of Miranda."
The U.S. Supreme Court could hear the case early next term. Any ruling by the high court justices would apply across the United States, and could profoundly affect the juvenile justice system.