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When is a Search of a Student at a Public School OK?

Summary in 50 Words or Less: A school staff officer at a public school may have police search a student’s backpack and pockets without a warrant if the school official has reasonable suspicion, i.e., sees a video of the student with a gun in class.
School safety is an almost sacred principal, so when a school vice principal receives an anonymous tip that she saw a specific student in a video on SnapChat displaying a firearm and magazine clip sitting in a classroom at school, the vice principal wanted to locate the student immediately and search his backpack.
The tipster further said the suspect wore dread locks and previously attended the high school.  The tipster also described the suspect’s gender and race.  The vice principal then watched the video.

The sense of urgency to protect other students first was paramount.  Asking permission from the student later to search him or her was less important.  The old adage of “it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission” certainly seemed like a wise approach when student safety is at risk.

Accordingly, on December 17, 2015, when the assistant principal received the anonymous tip, he immediately sprang to action.  The principal also became involved and removed the minor from class.  He then escorted him to a hallway, where a police officer assigned to the school resource center and a backup police officer were waiting.  They then searched the minor and found a semi-automatic handgun (a 9 mm Taurus) and a magazine containing several rounds of ammunition.
The minor then faced a petition in juvenile court for carrying a loaded firearm at school (a violation of Penal Code § 626.9(b)), a felony.  He was also charged with felony possession of a firearm by a minor (Penal Code § 29610) and misdemeanor possession of live ammunition by a minor (Penal Code § 29650).

Court of Appeal First Appellate District San FranciscoCourt of Appeal First Appellate District San Francisco

The minor filed a motion under Welfare & Institutions Code § 700.1 to suppress evidence related to search and seizure, including the handgun, the ammunition and the statements he made at the time of the search.  The minor contended that the search violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment because the police officer did not have a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot or that the minor was armed and dangerous.

The trial court denied the motion and the minor appealed the ruling to the First Appellate District.  The First Appellate District, in People v. K.J. (2018 DJDAR 146) affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

It began its analysis by noting that the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure applied on a public-school campus, such as in this case.  It acknowledged that “a search of a child’s person or of a closed purse or other bag carried on her person, no less than a similar search of an adult, is undoubtedly a severe violation of a subjective expectation of privacy.” New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) 469 U.S. 325, 337-338.  The actions of school officials are governed by limits placed on state action under the Fourteenth Amendment.  T.L.O., at 334.

In practice, however, a public-school student’s legitimate expectation of privacy is balanced against the school’s obligation to maintain discipline and to provide a safe environment for all students and staff.  T.L.O, at 339; In re Cody S. (2004) 121 Cal.App.4th 86, 90.

Accordingly, a school official may detain a student without a reasonable suspicion, so long as the detention is not arbitrary, capricious or for the purpose of harassment.  In re Randy G. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 556, 567.

The school official may then search the student’s person and personal effects based on a “reasonable suspicion that the search will disclose evidence that the student is violating or has violated the law or a school rule.  Cody S., supra, at 91.

Here, the appellate court found the detention was lawful under Randy G.  It was neither arbitrary, capricious or for the purpose of harassment.  Furthermore, the court found handcuffing the minor was reasonable as a safety measure because if the minor were to reach for the weapon, handcuffing him would prevent that and ensure the safety of the other students, staff and officers.

The appellate court also found the search was reasonable and not based on an unverified anonymous tip as the minor’s counsel argued.  Instead, the tip specified the suspect’s gender, race and unique hairstyle as well as his status as a former student.  Even if the vice principal had not watched the SnapChat video, the search would have been reasonable because “firearms are dangerous and extraordinary dangers sometimes justify unusual precautions . . . even if the tip were not otherwise sufficiently reliable.”  Florida v. J.L. (2000) 529 U.S. 266, at 272-73.

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