Tuesday, January 11, 2005
C.A. Rejects Teacher’s Search of Student’s Bag as Unreasonable
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A teacher’s search of a student’s personal belongings without prior information that the student engaged in misconduct reasonably related to the search violated the student’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Writing for Div. One, Justice Alex McDonald noted public school officials are government agents under the Fourth Amendment and their conduct is subject to the constitutional rights of their students against unreasonable searches and seizures. The legality of a search of a student depends on the reasonableness of the search under all the circumstances, McDonald said in an opinion that was filed Dec. 14, ordered published Thursday, and modified yesterday.
The panel reversed the juvenile court’s adjudication of Lisa G., as she was identified in the opinion, as a ward of the court, saying the student’s disruption of a class taught by teacher Andrea Craig was no basis for a search of her handbag.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Charles G. Rogers sustained weapons charges following denial of a motion to suppress. There was testimony at the suppression hearing that Lisa asked to go to the bathroom, but Craig—who was apparently dealing with a disruption involving several students and was unaware that Lisa had a medical condition, documented in school records, requiring frequent bathroom visits—insisted that she remain seated.
Lisa became insistent and ultimately walked out of the classroom even though Craig blocked the door.
Lisa left her purse on her desk. Craig moved the purse to the teacher’s desk and did not allow Lisa G. to re-enter the classroom.
Craig wrote a discipline referral for Lisa G. at the end of class, but testified she did not remember the student’s name—the incident occurred on the first day of class—and opened the purse to look for identification. The teacher said she saw a knife, closed the purse, and called security.
Lisa admitted possession of the knife after her motion to suppress was denied.
But McDonald, writing for the Court of Appeal, cited New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) 469 U.S. 325, which held that teachers and other public school employees are state actors for Fourth Amendment purposes and established a totality-of-the-circumstances test for determining whether a search by such an employee is reasonable.
Because Craig had no information that Lisa had engaged in any prohibited activity or that she had any prohibited items in her purse, the teacher had no suspicion that justified opening the student’s purse, McDonald said.
“Mere disruptive behavior does not authorize a school official to rummage through his or her students’ personal belongings,” the justice wrote.
McDonald distinguished Craig’s actions from cases where defendants failed to produce identification, noting that the teacher never asked Lisa G. for identification.
The case is In re Lisa G., D0443981.
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