Thursday, April 17, 2014
C.A. Upholds Warrantless Search of Student’s Locker
Panel Applies ‘Special Needs’ Rule, Says Probable Cause Not Required
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Educators at a Bay Area high school and local police did not violate the constitutional rights of a student when they searched a locker that contained his backpack, which had a sawed-off shotgun inside, the First District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Justice Robert L. Dondero, writing for Div. One, said campus security officers at Richmond High School had acted within their authority under the “special needs” doctrine, in connection with the February 2011 search. Bringing in city police to assist did not render the otherwise valid search unconstitutional, the justice added.
The panel affirmed an order sustaining a wardship petition against a juvenile identified as J.D. on a felony charge of possessing a firearm in a school zone. The sole issue on appeal was whether Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Barry Baskin erred in denying J.D.’s motion to suppress.
The search took place the day after a shooting that occurred on an AC Transit bus in North Richmond. According to testimony at the suppression hearing, a student approached a campus security officer and said a student identified as T.H. was the shooter, and that another student had told her that he brought the gun to school and put it in a locker.
Another campus security officer, whose responsibilities included keeping track of lockers, said that T.H. had been assigned a particular locker, but was rarely seen at that locker and often seen at another one. The officer said it was common for students to share the use of lockers as a way of concealing contraband.
The officer who first received the information said he went to the security office to call police, but a Richmond sergeant was already there for an unrelated reason. The sergeant suggested searching a locker that T.H. had been seen in front of.
When nothing unusual was found in that locker, the adjoining locker was opened, and the backpack and shotgun were found. T.H., questioned in another part of the building, admitted to having a handgun in his backpack, which was found near him.
Examining the backpack containing the shotgun, police found papers identifying J.D. as the owner of the backpack. After being Mirandized by a Richmond officer, he waived his rights, admitted possession of the shotgun, and said he brought it to school because he had been bothered by other students.
Dondero, in concluding the search was lawful, explained that while school officials do not have unfettered discretion to search students or their desks or lockers, the special-needs doctrine allows them to do so without a warrant, or probable cause, as long as they act reasonably. Given the information that the school had, the justice said, each of the steps it took was “narrow and focused,” and nothing they did was “inappropriate or unreasonable.”
“Importantly, in our case we are not reviewing the established policy of a district to engage in widespread conduct affecting many students. Instead, we are dealing with a shooting by a Richmond High School student on a public bus the previous day who was believed to be on school grounds on the day in question. Our matter called for the flexible but reasonable response demonstrated by school administrators and staff …. The reasonable response here was not prolonged over time nor a widespread checking of all lockers at Richmond High School. The locker 2501 that was adjacent to the first locker checked, 2499, was properly examined based on the observations of [a campus security officer] his experience with student concealment of items in other lockers, and the prompt need to address a serious shooting the previous day. The fact that minor J.D., rather than T.H., had stored an illegal weapon in locker 2501 should not disturb the legal validity of this search.”
The role of city police, he added, was of “no concern” because it was secondary to “the fundamental feature of this case—administrators seeking to secure the school premises from potential for violence.”
The case is In re J.D., 14 S.O.S. 1884.
Copyright 2014, Metropolitan News Company