Hoax Bombs, Police Interrogation and School Suspension

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An Irving teen, Ahmed Mohamed, was arrested for taking a hoax bomb to school. He claims he made a clock to show a teacher and was arrested because of his name. Since then, he has become a social media icon and praised worldwide with invitations to tour MIT and visit the White House. On the other side, there are theories that what he did was not laudatory. Engineers have opined that he did not invent a clock but instead took the plastic case off a digital alarm clock and stuck the “guts” into a pencil box. Many opine that the result looks a lot like a bomb and teachers and police have a duty to keep all students safe. So what does Texas law say about what he did and how he was treated?

Assuming the following facts: Ahmed made a clock and took it to school to show an engineering teacher; the teacher told him not to show it to others; Ahmed ignored that advice and took the clock to English class; the clock alarm went off and annoyed the teacher; he showed the device to the English teacher; she confiscated the device and notified the police; the police questioned him at school; he was subsequently detained, handcuffed and taken to a juvenile processing office and released to his father. The school reacted by suspending him for three days.

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Ahmed was questioned by the police at school. He was also questioned by police at the juvenile processing office. Ahmed complains that during the interrogation he was not permitted to call his parents. The protections afforded to juveniles under the Texas Family Code are triggered by the inquiry of whether or not the child was in custody. The law is clear that if a juvenile is in custody, the person taking him into custody must promptly give notice to the child’s parent. Once handcuffed and transported to the Irving police station, Ahmed was in custody. The harder question is whether he was in custody at the time he was questioned at the school. The courts have held that whether or not a child is in custody is a fact-driven inquiry. The court considers whether, in light of the given circumstances, a reasonable child of the same age would have felt he or she was at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave. The facts are not clear.

Once at the police station, he was entitled to be accompanied by his parent or attorney. The courts have held that by requiring the arresting officer to give notice of the arrest to a parent, the legislature gave the choice of whether or not to be present to the parent. However, the remedy for any violation of the Family Code would be suppression of a statement in any future prosecution. Allegedly, Ahmed did not make a statement and he is not being prosecuted. No harm, no foul.

The allegation was possession of a hoax bomb. A “hoax bomb” means a device that reasonably appears to be an explosive or incendiary device. A person commits an offense if the person knowingly manufactures or possesses a hoax bomb with intent to use the hoax bomb to make another believe that the hoax bomb is an explosive or incendiary device. This is a Class A misdemeanor. The English teacher believed the device reasonably appeared to be an explosive or incendiary device. Obviously, the problem with the charge is without a confession from Ahmed, there was no evidence that he knowingly manufactured or possessed a hoax bomb with the intent to make another believe that the hoax bomb is an explosive or incendiary device. The police responded to questions from the media stating, “It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car.” The problem with their theory is Ahmed never made any attempt to leave his clock in a bathroom or under a car. So without more, there was not enough evidence to support a charge.

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The school suspended Ahmed for three days. The Education Code provides the principal may suspend a student who engages in conduct identified in the student code of conduct for a period not to exceed three school days. The code of conduct prohibits the possession of a “look alike” weapon. Before being suspended, a student shall have an informal conference with the appropriate administrator, who shall advise the student of the conduct of which he is accused and be given the opportunity to explain his version of the incident before the administrator’s decision is made. In determining punishment, intent or lack of intent and the student‘s disciplinary history are taken into consideration. The school was within its authority to suspend Ahmed for three days, regardless of the wisdom of the decision. Laura A. Peterson

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