In the Matter of D.A.H., 2021-NCCOA-135 (April 20, 2021)

Reversed and Remanded

Facts: A student was suspected of possessing marijuana on the school bus. That student told the principal and the school resource officer (SRO) that another student, Deacon, had sold the marijuana to him. Deacon was absent from school the following two days. The day he returned to school he was summoned to the principal’s office. The principal and the SRO sat together across from Deacon and the principal questioned Deacon. The SRO testified to three slightly different variations of the conversation between the principal and Deacon, all of which culminated in Deacon stating that he sold the other student marijuana. The principal first reached out to Deacon’s guardian after he confessed. She came to the school and Deacon repeated his confession to her. Deacon was never read his Miranda rights, told he did not have to answer the questions, nor told that he was free to leave. During adjudication the juvenile argues that his confession was obtained in violation of his Miranda rights and the court concluded that Deacon was not entitled to Miranda warnings because the meeting with the principal was not a custodial interrogation.  Deacon was adjudicated delinquent for the sale and delivery of marijuana.


Opinion: The schoolhouse setting presents unique considerations regarding the Miranda rights of children as Miranda only applies to interrogations conducted in concert with or by law enforcement and because children shed some of their freedom of action when they enter the schoolhouse. A child is only under custodial interrogation in a school when that child is “subjected to additional restraints beyond those generally imposed during school.” Slip op. at ¶ 21. Increased collaboration between educators and law enforcement cannot lead to a situation where Miranda warnings are not required because a student is on school property. Circumstances where the SRO is present for questioning by school officials and the SRO does not participate in the questioning or the SRO participates minimally can qualify as custodial interrogations where Miranda warnings are required. The presence of an SRO can create a coercive environment that goes beyond the restrictions normally imposed during school such that a reasonable student would readily believe they are not free to leave.

While law enforcement presence weighs heavily on the scale of a determination of whether an encounter is a custodial interrogation, it is not dispositive and all the remaining Miranda factors related to custody and interrogation must be considered.

Custody: The court laid out several factors that are most relevant in determining whether a juvenile is in custody on the context of a schoolhouse interview. Those factors include:

(1) traditional indicia of arrest;

(2) the location of the interview;

(3) the length of the interview;

(4) the student’s age;

(5) what the student is told about the interview;

(6) the people present during the interview; and,

(7) the purposes of the questioning. Slip op. at ¶ 43.


Interrogation: the court identified the following factors as most relevant in the determination of whether an encounter constitutes an interrogation in the schoolhouse setting:

(1) the nature of the questions asked (interrogative or mandatory);

(2) the willingness of the juvenile’s responses; and,

(3) the extent of the SRO’s involvement. Slip op. at ¶ 53.

No single factor is controlling and the inquiry is whether the totality of the circumstances surrounding the questioning constitute custody.

The court then applied these factors to its analysis of the questioning of Deacon and found that the circumstances did amount to a custodial interrogation and the trial court therefore wrongly denied the motion to suppress Deacon’s confession. The court found that a reasonable 13-year-old would not have felt free to end the interview and leave, “given the location of the interview, what Deacon could have known about the interview before it began, the people present during the interview, and the investigatory purpose of the interview.” Slip op. at ¶59.

The court also noted that the trial court applied the wrong legal standard in its analysis of the issue. The trial court based its decision on assumed familiarity between the student and the SRO—that this was not “some strange officer in uniform.” Slip op. at ¶70. The court noted that the Miranda test is objective and not subjective in nature. The focus is whether a reasonable 13-year-old would have felt free to end the interrogation under the circumstances. The case was reversed and remanded because the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress after wrongly concluding that the questioning of Deacon was not a custodial interrogation.

Motions to Suppress
Custodial Interrogation
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