Wednesday, Augu. 14, 20001
School Officials May Detain Student Without Having Reasonable Suspicion, State Supreme Court Rules
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Public school officials do not need reasonable suspicion to stop and question a student, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Students on school grounds during school hours already lack the right to come and go as they please, so detaining them in order to investigate violations of school rules does not introduce any more than a “trivial” burden on their constitutional rights, Justice Marvin Baxter wrote.
As long as teachers and other officials don’t act arbitrarily or capriciously, or use their power to harass students, they are not in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s strictures against unreasonable stops or the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of due process, Baxter said.
“If the school can require the minor’s presence on campus during school hours, attendance at assigned classes during their scheduled meeting times, appearance at assemblies in the auditorium, and participation in physical education classes out of doors, liberty is scarcely infringed if a school security guard leads the student into the hall to ask questions about a potential rule violation,” Baxter said.
The ruling was criticized by Robert S. Gerstein, attorney for a Montebello High School student who was prosecuted and made a ward of the Los Angeles Superior Court after a school security officer detained him, conducted a patdown search and confiscated a knife.
“This equates being in school with being in jail,” Gerstein said. “They are saying that no justification is required whatever for a public school student to be detained for the purposes of investigating an offense.”
Gerstein’s client, Randy G., then 14, was spotted by a school security officer in a forbidden zone during passing period on the morning of March 16, 1999. The guard thought he looked nervous, so she followed him as he went to class and called another officer.
The two security officials then pulled the student out of the class and questioned him in the hallway for 10 minutes. They asked him for permission to do a patdown search, he granted it, and the officers found the knife.
The student was prosecuted. Juvenile Court Commissioner Gary Bounds denied his quest to exclude the knife from evidence, and this district’s Court of Appeal agreed with Bounds that the security personnel had reasonable grounds to detain him and question him.
The high court upheld the evidentiary ruling but on different grounds.
Whether or not there was the articulable suspicion required under traditional Fourth Amendment jurisprudence to detain a suspect, the court said, there simply was no detention here.
A brief investigative detention has been recognized by courts as less intrusive than a full arrest or a search, Baxter noted, calling for the reasonable or articulable suspicion standard rather than the probable cause needed for the more serious searches and seizures.
But he added that the court would have “failed utterly to accommodate the special needs” existing in schools if it simply extended to them the reasonable suspicion standard.
School officials exercise custodial power, supervision and control that could not be exercised over free adults, in order to meet their duties to educate students and protect them from harm, the justice said.
Gerstein said the Supreme Court of Illinois reached a different conclusion on the same issue—-a fact he and his client would consider when determining whether to seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case is In re Randy G., 01 S.O.S. 4047.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company