Thursday, December 23, 2010
Court of Appeal Upholds School’s Suspicionless Search of Student
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal yesterday upheld a San Diego County public high school’s policy of searching any minor that leaves and returns to campus during the school day.
Div. One ruled 2-1 that the policy was legal given its general application to all students and given the school’s interest in preventing the introduction of drugs or weapons into schools.
Justice Joan Irion dissented that the search of a student that yielded 44 pills of methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, commonly known as MDMA or ecstasy, was not lawful because it was not made pursuant to a valid policy of suspicionless searches and was not based on reasonable suspicion.
The student, identified as Sean A., was declared a ward of the court after he admitted possessing a controlled substance for sale following a trial court’s decision not to suppress the drugs.
An assistant principal conducted the search when the minor was observed returning to campus during the middle of a school day and a check of attendance records revealed he had been absent from three of four classes that day.
The administrator did so under a written policy, set forth in the school’s student handbook, providing that “students who return to campus after being ‘out-of-bounds’ are subject to a search of their person, their possessions, and vehicle when appropriate.” He later testified that he searched every student that left campus and returned, and that he did so to “keep students that are on campus safe” and ensure that “nobody’s bringing anything on campus they shouldn’t.”
The minor initially told the assistant principal that he went home to retrieve a notebook, but upon his arrest allegedly admitted that he left campus to pick up the pills and that he sold some on his way back.
The minor moved to suppress the pills, arguing that the search was unlawful, but San Diego Superior Court Judge Lawrence Kapiloff denied the motion. He ruled that the school’s search policy was “in line with the Constitution” and did not “effectively deny students on campus...the right to be free from search or seizure.”
The Court of Appeal agreed in an opinion by Justice Richard D. Huffman. Noting that the search was conducted pursuant to an established policy, he wrote:
“Plainly the purpose of the policy is to prevent students who have left and returned in violation of the school rules from bringing in harmful objects such as weapons or drugs like those discovered in the current case.
“As observed by both the United States Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court, school administrators have a responsibility to provide a safe learning environment for the students as well as a safe workplace for the staff.”
Justice Gilbert Nares joined Huffman in his opinion, but Justice Joan Irion dissented, agreeing with the student that the search should have been supported by reasonable suspicion and that the high school’s policy of suspicionless searches was not constitutionally valid.
The justice wrote that U.S. Supreme Court authority approves suspicionless searches in schools only in the context of drug testing programs, and said the people failed to meet their burden to establish a specific concern justifying the policy. Irion also opined that the policy significantly intruded on students’ legitimate expectation of privacy.
The case is In re Sean A., 10 S.O.S. 7087.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company