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Police in Florida sometimes go beyond their legal authority when interrogating suspects while they are in school.
By TOM MARSHALL and JONATHAN ABEL, Times Staff Writers
Published January 20, 2008
The officer radioed for backup.
A crime had been committed on the playground at Riviera Middle School in St. Petersburg. The cop called it felony strong-arm robbery.
He tried to reach detectives. School officials tried to phone parents of two suspects, but the officer could wait no longer and began interrogating them. Eventually, the two 14-year-olds waived their Miranda rights, confessed and went to jail.
Their crime? Knocking down a 13-year-old classmate, stealing $2 in lunch money and a handful of candy. They got Jolly Ranchers, Snickers and a lollipop.
Florida police frequently skirt state and federal laws, or violate them outright, when questioning children at school, a St. Petersburg Times investigation has found.
Often police question juvenile suspects first, and leave the Miranda warning for later. In some cases they question kids at school and take them to jail without notifying the principal. Or they interrogate them as suspects before trying to notify their parents, in violation of state law.
Even when police don't cut legal corners, experts say the push to station officers in most middle and high schools has brought a raft of unintended consequences: blurred roles, unclear legal authority and a sharp increase in school arrests for minor infractions that could be handled out of court.
Principals, the last line of defense for kids jeopardized by police misconduct, rarely challenge resource officers or other police who enter school to interrogate students.
And children are saddled with criminal records that can follow them for a lifetime.
"They won't be able to get a job, they won't be able to go to college," said Judge Robert Evans of the 9th Judicial Circuit. "They're screwed for life."
* * *
On the afternoon of Sept. 19, 2006, two deputies knocked on Andrea Macdowell's front door and asked to see her 11-year-old son, Bryce. Standing on the porch of her Palm Harbor home, deputies accused the boy of spray-painting graffiti on a Dumpster.
The mother told them they had been at a family gathering in Clearwater on the night of the crime. But a deputy didn't buy it.
"He said, 'Your son is a (expletive) little punk,'" Macdowell recalled. "At that point I said, 'We're done.' Bryce and I went inside and shut the door and they left. You don't stand on my porch and degrade my son."
The next day, the same officers -- Cpl. Stanley Schneider and Deputy James Brueckner of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office -- showed up at Palm Harbor Middle School and took Bryce to a small office.
No school administrators were present, and a substitute school resource officer stood outside the room.
Under pressure, Bryce made what deputies called a confession. They arrested him on misdemeanor charges of criminal mischief and took the boy to a juvenile detention center.
Then they called his mother.
* * *
From a legal standpoint, everything had gone wrong.
Neither of the deputies could recall giving Bryce his Miranda warning, though Brueckner testified in court that he "must have" done so.
Nor did they immediately call the boy's parents from school, despite a state law that requires them to try repeatedly when taking kids into custody.
Courts have ruled children are "in custody" if they're being questioned in a high-pressure manner, presented with evidence of their guilt and feel they're not free to walk away. By that measure, Bryce was clearly in police custody during his school interrogation, said Circuit Judge Marion Fleming.
And by questioning him in the absence of a mother who had already offered evidence of his innocence, the judge said, police "exploited the child."
Fleming threw out Bryce's confession, and the case was later dropped.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office later acknowledged the arrest was flawed and said the ruling would help teach deputies about the need for extra care in questioning children.
"Clearly the judge's point is well taken," said Chief Deputy Dennis Fowler. "From a training perspective, we will all learn from this."
* * *
But courts rarely scrutinize school interrogations.
Public defenders say schoolhouse confessions are common, and judges often encourage kids to waive their right to a lawyer and plead guilty.
"We run into that quite frequently," said Bob Dillinger, chief public defender in Pinellas and Pasco counties. "It's a systemic problem."
Half of all juveniles went without a lawyer in Pasco and Pinellas counties in 2005, as did three-quarters of those in Sarasota, Manatee and De Soto counties, according to the Florida Supreme Court.
In both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, an unusually high number of kids were arrested at school and referred to court, according to the Department of Juvenile Justice. Hillsborough sent students at a rate of 21 per 1,000, while Pinellas sent 24, compared to a state average of 17.
Those counties were singled out in a report that year by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other groups, which charged that students of color were arrested out of proportion to their numbers in schools. Black students accounted for 22 percent of the student population, but they made up 47 percent of all school referrals to court, according to state figures.
In a recent study, the National Juvenile Defender Center described Florida's juvenile system as dangerously dysfunctional, with courts overloaded by low-bore school referrals.
"We saw, in courtroom after courtroom, hundreds of school-based cases that had no business being there," said Patricia Puritz, the center's executive director. "There was no place where these kids were not being dumped into the juvenile court setting."
* * *
No one collects statistics on unnecessary or flawed school arrests. But experts say they have helped clog the juvenile courts with minor cases. And a Times examination of public records found numerous examples across the Tampa Bay area.
In the playground incident at Riviera Middle School in St. Petersburg, two emotionally handicapped boys, both 14, were arrested on felony strongarm robbery charges in the fall of 2006.
The victim, 13, was emptying his pockets into his binder before joining a basketball game. Suddenly a group of boys "swarmed him," knocked him down, and fled with his lunch money and candy, according to police reports.
Police defended the decision to arrest the boys on felony charges, which were later reduced.
"When they inject fear and force and forcibly remove property, it's a robbery," said Bill Proffitt, a spokesman for the St. Petersburg Police Department.
* * *
Florida law gives children more rights than adults.
Police must engage in a careful give-and-take discussion of Miranda warnings and prove kids know what they're doing when they waive constitutional rights against self-incrimination.
Beneath that requirement lies a body of state and federal court rulings that say children need adult help in managing adult situations, said Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, a law professor and director of the Center on Children and Families at the University of Florida.
"A big, bright 13-year-old may just completely lack experience and judgment and perspective because they haven't been around for very long," Woodhouse added. "They haven't been exposed to a lot of situations. They just don't get it."
But Florida police and principals frequently exploit loopholes in the law, said Gerard Glynn, associate professor of law and director of the juvenile law clinic at Barry University in Orlando.
In some schools, he said, principals routinely question students about their involvement in incidents, while the school resource officer, or SRO, stands in the background and takes notes that can be used to prosecute them. Unless the officer speaks, courts have ruled Miranda warnings aren't required.
"It allows individual SROs or outside police to come in and really manipulate the system," Glynn said. "Children are getting less protection than adults, in the context of interrogation."
* * *
Not that long ago, it was unusual to see a police officer in a school. Miscreants got instant justice, often with a paddle, detention or a stern call home. And the principal was in charge.
Then modern life intruded. Juvenile crime rates spiked in the 1990s, and legislators crafted zero-tolerance laws. Two students killed a dozen classmates and a teacher at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo. School boards responded by stationing officers in most middle and high schools.
These days, SROs say security is their top priority.
But they also teach classes on law, coach, supervise the cafeteria and handle minor discipline issues. Few screen students for weapons.
And it's often unclear who's in charge when problems arise.
In the case of a scuffle or missing pocketbook, SROs are often first to arrive at the scene, thanks to their school-issued radios.
They decide if a crime has been committed, and it can be hard for principals to override them.
And with an SRO already stationed in the school, front-desk staff rarely ask questions when other police arrive to investigate off-campus crimes.
In one 2006 incident in Hernando County, a deputy bypassed the SRO at Fox Chapel Middle School to question three students suspected of writing profanity in cement at an off-campus construction site. No parents were called until after they were handcuffed and headed to jail on felony charges.
David Schoelles, the principal at the time, said he had no idea another deputy was even in the building.
* * *
Do principals have the right to monitor student interrogations?
Absolutely, said Tom Gonzalez, general counsel for the Hillsborough County School Board.
"If they ever get uncomfortable (with an interrogation), they should speak up and say, 'You know what, I think we should wait for that person's parent,'" he said.
Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando policies require principals to always be present in loco parentis -- legally "in the place of the parent" -- when police question students as suspects.
Hillsborough tells principals they must ordinarily block outside police from even entering schools to investigate off-campus crimes.
Pinellas County policies give more power to police, saying deputies "may allow an administrator to be present" during interrogations.
Jim Robinson, the School Board attorney, said administrators always make a point of being in the room during a student interrogation.
But upon learning of Bryce Macdowell's interrogation, without school administrators present, he said the district might consider a stronger policy.
"It's something I will certainly raise with the superintendent," Robinson said.
And while districts wrestle with vague state laws on police jurisdiction in schools, police departments assert their right to question students to the very limits of the law.
"We can question kids on campus. We do it every day," said Kevin Doll, a spokesman for the Pasco Sheriff's Office. "We can ask them, 'Did you do something?' It's not a custodial interview, and Miranda does not have to be read."
* * *
But even with the strongest policies, kids fall through the cracks.
Two years ago, a Tampa Police Department detective walked unopposed into a Hillsborough middle school to question students suspected of spiking their music teacher's lemonade with cleaning fluid.
The teacher was unhurt. But Detective Eric Houston told one 14-year-old suspect the prank was tantamount to attempted murder.
"Do you want to stick with that story?" he asked the girl, who said she knew nothing about it, according to court documents. "You understand this isn't a game? We're looking to file on this report. It says 'poisoning food and water with intent to kill.' And that's a felony, and that's prison time."
The girl's "fleeting eye contact" struck him as suspicious, so he interviewed her again and captured her confession on his tape recorder.
But somehow, the detective testified, the tape recorder wasn't running during the crucial moment when he gave the child her Miranda warning.
And the girl's parents weren't contacted until she was locked up in a juvenile detention facility.
The 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled the girl's statement inadmissible, and reversed her conviction for poisoning with intent to injure, a felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
Hillsborough school officials said they should have been at the girl's side during her interrogation.
"That's the policy," said Lewis Brinson, Hillsborough's assistant superintendent for administration. "Why they weren't there, I don't know."
But the Tampa Police Department said its detective acted properly.
"We 100 percent stand behind our officer," said spokeswoman Andrea Davis.
* * *
Talk to many police officers about flawed arrests, and expect to hear something about bad apples.
"When a law enforcement officer steps over the line, unfortunately it gives everyone a bad name," said Lt. Timothy Enos, a spokesman for the Florida Association of School Resource Officers.
He said putting more SROs into schools, and passing a law requiring proper training, would help reduce bad arrests and reversals in court.
Every county in the Tampa Bay area sends officers to a 40-hour SRO course offered by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It includes instruction in the law, campus safety, drug and gang issues, student counseling and even a crash-course in planning lessons and teaching.
But even with training, "there are people who make mistakes," said Ken Keeney, a recent deputy of the year in Hernando County.
He's the sort of officer police departments like to brag about. Keeney high-fives students and greets them by name during his rounds at Parrott Middle School, and offers mentoring for troubled kids.
"It's the most rewarding job I've ever done," Keeney said, but it's not the job for an arrest-hungry cop who doesn't connect with kids.
"If you remotely think you have a suspect, why not call the parents and notify them of their rights at that point?" he added.
* * *
But critics like Judge Evans say the system that puts cops in schools is full of holes and needs an overhaul by the Legislature.
In some Florida districts, principals are "completely abdicating to the police" and turning over discipline to untrained SROs, said Evans, former chairman of an advisory committee to the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Juvenile convictions are no longer automatically expunged at the age of 18. So arrests follow children into adulthood via the Internet, he said.
Public defenders have pushed for laws requiring all juvenile interrogations to be tape recorded.
And they have proposed a rule to the Florida Supreme Court requiring every child to speak with a lawyer before they waive their right to one.
"The judges seem to believe that children in this coercive atmosphere are acting freely and voluntarily," said Dillinger, the public defender in Pinellas and Pasco counties. "We just don't believe that's the case."
There are alternatives to sending kids to court.
Some school districts, including Hillsborough County, have encouraged SROs to issue civil citations or refer students to local "accountability boards" for nonviolent offenses, rather than arresting them.
Such measures bring immediate consequences for infractions, rather than an expensive tour through the courts, Evans said.
But the potential for abuse remains.
"There needs to be some rational system to interview kids with the parents or school officials around," he said. "Not where detectives can come into school, push the SROs aside and pull an 11-year-old out of class."
What are your rights?
Kids, as well as adults, have the constitutional right to remain silent if they're questioned by police about their involvement in a crime, legal experts say.
Kids can ask police if they're free to walk away from an interview. If they're not, it means they're in custody and their Miranda rights must be read.
When taking children into custody, police are required by state law to attempt to notify parents, and keep trying.
School officials don't have to read Miranda warnings. But anything students say can be used against them in court, even if a police officer isn't present.
It's always okay for kids to talk with parents or a lawyer before speaking to police or school officials about a crime. And legal experts say kids should use their legal right to talk with a lawyer before facing court or pleading guilty to delinquency charges.
What are SROs?
School resource officers are police who work full time in schools.
- They typically report to local police departments but are sometimes paid by school districts.
- In addition to enforcing laws, they often teach, coach, supervise the cafeteria or assist with school disciplinary matters. They are often treated as part of the administrative team.
- Under state law, SROs must follow school board policies. Other laws give them full authority to investigate crimes and make arrests, while giving school officials authority over schools and the welfare of children. Experts say Florida law does little to resolve conflicts between those laws.
School resource officers by county
- Pinellas County: 53
- Hillsborough County: 70
- Pasco County: 34
- Hernando County: 11
[Last modified January 20, 2008, 02:32:09]