Divided COA reverses delinquency finding after school discipline

A divided Indiana Court of Appeals panel has reversed a delinquency finding against a high school student who vandalized school bathrooms, with each judge writing separately to share their views on how the increased presence of police officers in schools can impact the nature of school disciplinary proceedings.

In D.Z. v. State of Indiana, 32A05-1708-JV-1907, 17-year-old D.Z. was identified as a suspect in a rash of vandalism in the boys’ restrooms at Brownsburg High School. Assistant principal Demetrius Dowler – who worked with school resource officer Nathan Flynn to identify D.Z. as the suspect — questioned the student about about the vandalism in his office without notifying D.Z.’s parents of the “discussion” or telling D.Z. he had a right not to answer questions.

When D.Z. confessed to the vandalism to Dowler, Flynn entered Dowler’s office and spoke to the student, also without informing him of his rights, contacting an adult or recording the interview. Dowler informed D.Z. he would be suspended for five days, while Flynn told him he would be charged with a crime.

When the state filed a delinquency petition alleging the 17-year-old had committed what would be criminal mischief and harassment if committed by an adult, Flynn’s testimony regarding D.Z.’s incriminating statements were suppressed at a subsequent fact-finding hearing because the student had not been Mirandized. The juvenile court then entered a true finding only on the criminal mischief allegation, a Class B misdemeanor if committed by an adult.

A divided panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed D.Z.’s adjudication on Thursday, with each of the three judges writing separate opinions explaining their positions. Judge Patricia Riley authored the majority opinion, focusing the opinion on how the trend toward juvenile justice interventions in American schools “can serve to change the nature of questioning a student for purposes of school discipline into a criminal investigation.” Here, the nature of the questioning of D.Z. was one of a custodial interrogation requiring advisement of his Miranda rights, Riley wrote.

“No reasonable student would have believed that he was at liberty to leave the office – it is undeniable that juveniles are susceptible to the influence of authority figures and the constraining effect of being in a controlled setting of a school, where ‘disobedience (can be) cause for disciplinary action,’” she wrote. “…Police officers cannot avoid their duty under Miranda by attempting to have someone act as their agent in order to bypass the Miranda requirements.”

Thus, the majority found the juvenile court abused its discretion by admitting D.Z.’s incriminating statements to Dowler and reversed the delinquency finding. Judge John Baker joined Riley in the majority ruling, but wrote separately that the state put forth a compelling argument when it alleged D.Z.’s discussion with Dowler was “merely a school disciplinary hearing.”

“Unfortunately, I believe it ignores the reality of today’s school hallways,” Baker wrote. “The frequent – in some places, constant – presence of officers in our schools has, in my view, changed the nature of the school disciplinary process.”

Judge Elaine Brown, however, dissented, writing in her opinion that Dowler’s investigation and discussion with D.Z. was an attempt to restore order after the vandalism – which was sexual in nature and targeted specific female students – was posted on social media.

“To the extent that the majority asserts that school and law enforcement investigations became ‘inextricably intertwined’ or that Dowler’s questioning amounted to an ‘interrogation, geared toward a criminal proceeding,’ the record does not indicate that Dowler acted as Officer Flynn’s agent in an attempt to bypass any Miranda requirements,” Brown wrote. “Rather, the situation here is similar to State v. C.D., where an investigation, first initiated by a school official, is subsequently assisted by a law enforcement officer, who is not independently investigating the matter.”

Similar to the holding in C.D., Brown said she would find here that there was no Miranda violation in the context of the statements D.Z. made to Dowler before Flynn was present.

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