September 24, 2017
The 4th Amendment and School Searches
The 4th Amendment is a pretty simple body of law at first glance: individuals are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. This basically means that the police or the government needs to show good reason before invading a person reasonable expectation of privacy. However, their “good reason” depends on the situation. In entering certain situations, people dilute their 4th amendment rights. And while the police generally need probable cause and a warrant to conduct a search, the regular 4th amendment requirements are changed when people enter government buildings like schools and airports.
Public schools create a rather interesting 4th Amendment situation. First, there is a question of whether minor students should get the same constitutional rights as adults. Minor children do have rights, and in some cases like Miranda interrogations, can see their constitutional rights expanded. Additionally, school officials like principals and teachers are government actors and as part of the government, are held to all constitutional standards. On the other hand, school officials also have an interest in preserving order and school safety. But school officials are neither lawyers nor law enforcement, and are unlikely to be familiar with usual 4th amendment standards and the processes by which they are applied. Because of this, the U.S. Supreme Court created a special standard for school officials in the 1985 case, N.J. v. T.L.O. In this case, the court allowed school authorities to perform searches when there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating the law or rules of the school. However, that search must be reasonable and be done within the scope of the search, and cannot be excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.
Given the concern over the two decades about gun violence in schools, heightened security seems to make sense. Searches based on reasonable suspicion do not need to be overly invasive and have the potential to prevent a major incident from happening in public schools. But diluting anybody’s rights, no matter how good the reason is, is a slippery slope to go down. Already this case has been used and abused by certain school administrators, and state courts have been reluctant to call searches on school ground unconstitutional. Additionally, the widespread presence of School Resource Officers (SRO) creates a further constitutional dilemma. The T.L.O. standard was created in part because school officials are unlikely to understand the Fourth Amendment like a law enforcement officer.
Give King Law a call if you have concerns over school searches. Our attorneys are here to help you and answer your questions. -1-888-748-KING (5464)