Justices to decide if school disciplinary investigation implicated Miranda rights

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Olivia Covington for www.theindianalawyer.com

A case that the Indiana Court of Appeals used to explore how the presence of school resource officers changes the nature of in-school discipline will soon come before the Indiana Supreme Court, which will decide if a 17-year-old should have been read his Miranda rights while being questioned in a school disciplinary action.

The case of D.Z. v. State of Indiana, 18S-JV-295, began when 17-year-old D.Z. was identified as a suspect in a rash of vandalism in the boys’ restroom at Brownsburg High School. Assistant principal Demetrius Dowler questioned D.Z. about the vandalism in his office without notifying the student’s parents or informing him that he had a right not the answer questions.

D.Z. eventually confessed to Dowler, prompting school resource officer Nathan Flynn to enter the office and speak with the teenager, also without contacting his parents, informing him of his rights or recording the interview. Flynn’s testimony about D.Z.’s incriminating statements was later suppressed at a factfinding hearing because he had not Mirandized the student, but the juvenile court still found D.Z. to be a delinquent for what would be Class B misdemeanor criminal mischief if committed by an adult.

A divided panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed D.Z.’s adjudication in February, with Judge Patricia Riley writing that the nature of the questioning of D.Z. was one of a custodial interrogation requiring advisement of his Miranda rights.

“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,’” Riley wrote. The majority opinion also addressed the increasingly fine line between school disciplinary action and criminal investigations in today’s world.

Judge John Baker joined the majority, but wrote a concurring opinion that explored how school resource officers have changed the nature of school disciplinary proceedings. But Judge Elaine Brown dissented, finding that Dowler’s discussion with D.Z. was merely an attempt to restore order after the vandalism.

“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.

The justices also granted transfer to John E. Moriarity, et al. v. Indiana Department of Natural Resources, 18S-PL-296. The Court of Appeals’ ruling in that case upheld DNR’s classification of John and Mae Moriarity’s dam as a “high-hazard” dam.

The unanimous court reached that decision after finding DNR had jurisdiction over the dam pursuant to Indiana Code section 14-27-7.5-8. Additionally, there was evidence that a break in the dam could cause serious damage to nearby homes and roads, Judge Edward Najam wrote. That ruling meant the couple must inspect and repair the self-constructed dam.

The couple will appeal that decision, though oral argument has not yet been set in either Moriarity or D.Z.

The justices denied transfer to 18 other cases last week, including one the court has already considered, Brandon Mockbee v. State of Indiana, 15A01-1703-CR-483. The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld Brandon Mockbee’s burglary and obstruction of justice convictions in November 2017 and affirmed the finding that he was a habitual offender based on prior felony convictions in Ohio.

At the time of Mockbee’s 2016 offenses, Indiana law required the state to prove an offender had two prior unrelated felonies — one of which was not a Class D or Level 6 — to prove a habitual offender allegation. If one of those felonies was a Level 5 or 6 or Class D or C, not more than 10 years could have elapsed between the time the offender was released and the current offense.

But in 2017, the Indiana Supreme court handed down Matthew L. Johnson v. State of Indiana, 87 N.E.3d 471 (Ind. 2017) and Darryl Calvin v. State of Indiana, 87 N.E.3d 474 (Ind. 2017). Johnson held that the 2015 version of the habitual offender statute required an offender to have been released from all lower-level felonies within 10 years to establish a habitual offender enhancement, while the Calvin majority held that all out-of-state felonies are statutorily considered Level 6 felonies for habitual offender purposes.

The justices remanded Mockbee’s case in light of those rulings, and the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed his habitual offender status in March. His convictions were affirmed, but the justices denied transfer to the COA’s second holding on Tuesday.

The full list of transfer decisions can be read here.

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