Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Search, Seizure, and Seniors

Where students/children are involved, rights are a little murky; do students have lesser rights than adults, and if so, to what degree? Do the rights of students in high school change when they turn 18 before graduation?

Due to a recent incident at my school, a few students asked me some questions today. I told them I don't know the answers, but walked them through what I know for sure and told them what I surmised about the gray areas.

Q: Can the vice principal require you to open the trunk of your car?

A: I don't think so. If a law enforcement officer stops you for speeding, he cannot require you to open the trunk of your car unless he has reasonable suspicion that something illegal is there. Otherwise, he's on a fishing expedition, and all our courts (except maybe the 9th Circuit in San Francisco) know that won't fly. (Fly, fishing--get it? Sometimes I slay myself.) So I'd be surprised if a vice principal could require you to do what a law enforcement officer cannot. The 4th Amendment protects you here.

A vice principal cannot search your backpack--whether that's a 4th Amendment issue, state law, or district policy, I'm not sure. If he/she suspects something illegal, though (say, drugs), and the student refuses permission, the VP can summon law enforcement and they can search the backpack if the VP's evidence warrants a search (without a warrant--I'm cracking myself up here). Does this change when the student turns 18?

How much of this changes when you cross into a different state?

The field of law can be most interesting, especially where students are concerned.

Now, don't you want to know why the VP asked the student to open his/her trunk?


Eric W. said...

A VP can give you a detention/saturday school for insubordination if you don't follow their directions. Students don't really have much of a choice when confronted. I mean, sure, the 4th amendment does apply... but how many people do you honestly think would stand up to a VP? Maybe the ones with something to hide, but that would just make the VP more suspicious and give them probably cause.

MasonPiper said...

Got to be a policy I can search a student on reasonable suspicion, a much lower threshold than probable cause. That includes backpacks, lockers and now phones. As I am in Middle school right now, I do not have to worry about cars. That being said, at all of the High Schools I have worked at, to get a parking permit a student signs a waiver that allows their car to be searched. YMMV

Unknown said...

Well Rio already violated the vice principal cannot search your backpack part since I've seen that with my own eyes. In Dibble's class some coins that were being passed around went missing, a VP was brought in, and backpacks were being searched by the VP until someone found the coins under a binder. So obviously if that was illegal I doubt Rio has been checking if their other actions have been legal or not.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

Okay, I'll bite...what did they think was in the trunk???

Since my middle schoolers don't drive (yet), we haven't had to deal with that. I do know that I can, as a school district employee, open up any locker I want as they are considered school property. However, our SRO, who is employed by the county cannot unless he has probably cause.

As for backpacks, I know they've had the SRO go through them, with an administrator in attendance, but honestly, with our middle schoolers, there's usually not a fuss. They're usually so scared they'll admit to just about anything.

Darren said...

I don't think you can be punished for insisting on a constitutional right, but that doesn't mean the person in charge can't (legally) make your life difficult. If no one can legally search the trunk, I doubt it would be too much trouble to rescind parking privileges.

As for what was in the trunk, that's not really the correct question. "Who" would be a better question :-)

Unknown said...

Ah, I think if it was a "who" rather than a "what" that was being searched for, the vice principal probably has authority under a public safety exception.

Anonymous said...

Evidently it's not the VP...

Anonymous said...

A teacher or school official can legally search a backpack (or purse or ask that pockets be emptied) if there is reasonable belief that a law or school rule has been broken, like there are cigarettes in there. As far as the trunk of a car...don't know. I'd argue for the school that since parking not a right, then it would be okay. "let me look in your trunk or I'll take away your parking permit." It may be in the policy just as to get a parking permit you must produce proof of insurance, you must consent to searches. Also it depends on what is being looked for. Cigarettes are one thing, a gun is another.

KauaiMark said...

"...A vice principal cannot search your backpack--whether that's a 4th Amendment issue, state law, or district policy, I'm not sure."

If TSA can xray, open backpacks and have you strip down to your socks without a warrant then I can't see why a vice principal can't have you pop the trunk while on school property.

Ellen K said...

Here is my question, if the car is parked on school property and there is reason to believe something dangerous lurks within, do we sit and wait for the Supreme Court to hand down a mandate or do we take actions. I ask this because this year at my school I witnessed a drug bust of a junior girl whose back seat included gram scales, baggies, cash box and of course a plethora of prescription drugs and pot. Our school is pretty much ravaged by prescription drugs and a couple of deaths in past year are linked to drug abuse. Should the principal simply allow her the privacy to conduct her business on school property, or should action be taken? I've always understood that part and parcel of the status of the school is as a representative caretaker of the student. I don't know that I would be really happy to send my child to a school where the caretakers didn't bother to remove weapons or drugs from the vicinity.

Darren said...

I'm not convinced that school officials have the requisite training required to ensure they meet legal criteria when conducting searches. Better to bring in the trained law enforcement professionals to ensure less likelihood of a mistake that would get a criminal off the hook.

Anonymous said...

There are several issues here. Generally, students do have a lesser expectation of privacy in the school setting due to the doctrine of in loco parentis (in place of the parents). However, at the same time, the Supreme Court has ruled that students can't be assumed to have surrendered their rights at the schoolhouse gate. So it's a balancing act. Ultimately, administrator/teacher actions will likely be judged on reasonableness. Would a reasonable administrator/teacher have acted as they did given the same circumstances?

There are, of course, some very clear issues. Lockers can generally be searched at will, particularly if the school has a policy making clear that they remain school property while students use them. Anyone wanting to search anything, including a backpack or the trunk of a vehicle would want to have at least "reasonable suspicion," which is commonly defined as articulable observations, facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable, experienced administrator or teacher to believe that something improper was happening or about to happen. Simply thinking that something looks suspicious is not enough. However, if years of experience have taught you that when kids handle a backpack in the way that little Johnny was handing his indicates some misbehavior, you may well have reasonable suspicion. If Johnny smells like the inside of a freshly smoked bong, you might well be justified in a search of his socks, pockets, or other places kids are known to hide drugs. You might even ask that he submit to a urine or blood test.

This differs from probable cause which is articulable facts, circumstances and observations that would convince a reasonable administrator/teacher that a specific rule infraction had occurred or was imminent and that a specific person committed or was about to commit it. PC is obviously the higher standard.

Remember too that if all a principal does when he catches a juvenile malefactor in the act is impose school discipline, he can get away with a great deal more than if he involves the police. If the courts determine that a principal, through his actions, is essentially acting as an agent of the police, then the same strictures relating to RS, PC, evidence, etc. that apply to the police will usually apply to the principal. Even without the involvement of the police, the courts generally require an in house due process procedure at minimum.

Consider these factors: 1) The less any action resembles a fishing expedition, the more likely it will be upheld as reasonable. 2) Most courts give schools great leeway, so long as their actions are reasonable and directly related to maintaining good order, discipline, and an appropriate learning climate. 3) Some judges in some jurisdictions, apparently having been frightened by teachers while children, are not reasonable or rational in such matters.

So, the lesson for today is, have good, substantial, articulable reasons for what you do. Have intelligent, written polices in place and follow them. Have adult witnesses present if at all possible. Be reasonable and professional. Document everything completely with an eye toward the maintenance of discipline, order and an effective learning environment as your ultimate reason for acting. Be evenhanded and never play favorites, and be consistent in the application and severity of discipline. Offense A receives punishment level 1, etc. Be reasonable, above all

Dan Edwards said...

It involves "in loco parenti", that the school is the parent. IIRC, schools have the right/duty to ensure a safe place for their students. Backpacks, lockers, pockets can be searched. That being said, there usually has to be some reason for the search.

As for opening the trunk of a vehicle, well, is there a history we should know about regarding the student/vehicle in question ? Does the school have security officers or local police liason officers who can handle this type of search ?

Somewhere along the way, priviledge became right. IMO, the rights of the majority far outweigh the inconvience of the few. IMO, as long as they are not being abusive or intentionally violating anyones "rights", I think schools have the power to do a search if officials believe it is warrented.
I do not believe this includes a strip search or body cavity search. A vice principal at Mountain Empire S.D. (San Diego Co.), was fired for doing a strip search.

Darren said...

What I want to ensure is that we don't confuse what "oughta be" with the law.

Polski, you should check out Ed Code Section 49050

Anonymous said...

Now, I could be wrong, but if students (as minors) have fewer rights, the extra slack is not given to the schools. It is given to the parents.

Searching lockers does not violate the students -- the lockers are school property. Just as my employer can search my company computer or watch what web sites I visit or read my email through my work email address, so can schools choose to search their property (lockers). But not students' property (backpack, car, their own person, etc.), any more than my boss could ask me to turn out my purse.

However, if the student (AND his non-minor parent or guardian) sign a form that says they will waive their right to the privacy of the car's truck in order to park in the parking lot, well, you signed that right away.

I think far too many companies and schools ask (and require) people to write away their legal rights these days, however. For example, most credit card companies now make you sign something that says you agree to handle all disagreements through an arbitrator, instead of through courts and lawyers.

But anyway, I homeschool. :) And I tend to not sign anything I don't agree with, though sometimes there isn't an easy way (or any way at all) to argue with the person with the contract (for example, the terms of use for many computer programs) -- then I have to decide if I'm willing to agree to their terms or not. Sometimes it's not.

Anonymous said...

Just to respond to other commenters, many of you are presenting a false situation. There is not simply two choices: to either give school administrators the rights not even granted to the police (that is, a search without a warrant) or to allow kids to bring weapons and drugs to school without recourse.

There is a third and correct option -- if you have enough evidence, you call the police, who follow *proper* channels to obtain a warrant and search the car/trunk/whatever *legally*.

Polski3 -- A democracy is rule by the majority, but it does not require (and indeed cannot include) an erosion of the rights of the few just for convenience sake. The *right* to not undergo unreasonable search and seizure is pretty well spelled out as a right, not a priviledge. ;)

Though it seems the Supreme Court disagrees with me:

Oh well. We disagree often, these days.

The Supreme Court of the 20th century would probably decide it was okay to require citizens to provide soldiers quarter, simply because it's too hard and troublesome to find them somewhere to sleep otherwise. :P