Search and Seizure in the Public Schools

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Search & Seizure in the Public Schools

To fully understand the role and related responsibilities of search and seizure in the public schools, the Constitutional rights of the students and case law must be examined.
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution states:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The intent of the Fourth Amendment is to guarantee security against unreasonable governmental searches. Because school officials are actually government officials, or employees, the question arises, does the Fourth Amendment protection apply to public schools, and do public school teachers and principals need "probable cause" and a warrant to search, or is some lesser standard of protection for the student appropriate? The courts have almost uniformly said that because of the special relationship to students in the school setting, school officials need only "reasonable suspicion" in order to have a constitutionally valid search. "Reasonable suspicion" is a belief or opinion based upon facts or circumstances that do not amount to proof. School officials also enjoy "qualified immunity" if searches have not been declared unconstitutional or are not against school policy, statutes, etc. They are assumed to be acting in "good faith".

The leading case in this area is New Jersey vs. T.L.O. (1985). Fourteen year old freshman in New Jersey, aka T.L.O., was accused of smoking cigarettes in a restroom in her high school. Upon searching her purse, an assistant principal discovered that she possessed cigarettes. In addition, he found cigarette rolling papers, a small amount of marijuana, a pipe, a number of plastic bags, a substantial quantity of one dollar bills, an index card that appeared to be a list of students who owed TLO money, and two letters that implicated her in dealing marijuana. When the case went to court the parents asked to have the evidence suppressed due to absence of a search warrant. The Court upheld the actions of the school administrator stating that school officials need to be held to a lower standard of the search and seizure laws due to the fact that school officials have the responsibility to maintain a proper learning environment through swift and informal discipline. Because of this fact the court maintained that a search of a student by a teacher or school official must satisfy two conditions: "the search must be justified at its inception and it must be reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place." (Essex, p. 70)

An example of a case which did not satisfy the T.L.O. test was A.S. v. State of Florida. A Florida middle school assistant principal brought four students to the principal's office and searched their belongings after she observed them huddled in a group – one with money in hand. She found a small amount of marijuana on one. Court of Appeals ruled searched violated both parts of the TLO test. The fact that four students were huddled together, one with money in hand, was not enough to create reasonable suspicion since the principal saw no contraband or any exchange among the students and therefore was not justified.

If reasonable suspicion is not established, a school official may conduct a search of a student if permission is granted by that student. The Fourth Amendment does not regulate consensual searches–so long as they are truly consensual. Before forcing any searches, school officials should investigate to determine whether individualized suspicion exists for the students who did not consent to a search. The following is a summary of Case Law which has established precedence for various search and seizure situations: Drug...
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