“After the initial search, all justifications for examining the bag’s contents were fulfilled and no further justification existed to search the bag.”
— 10th District Court of Appeals
“Teachers are authorized to completely search an apparently abandoned book bag to determine ownership and for safety purposes.”
— Ron O’Brien
Franklin County Prosecutor
A female teacher steps into a high school bathroom where she discovers a freshman smoking a cigarette- a clear violation of school rules. The freshman has her purse with her and the teacher takes the student, and her purse, to the assistant vice principal’s office. Believing that the student’s purse must be holding the remaining evidence of her smoking, he asks her to hand it over.
The administrator then looks into the purse where he sees not only a pack of cigarettes, but also rolling papers. He then searches deeper into the purse and finds a small amount of marijuana, a pipe, empty plastic bags, a substantial amount of money in $5 bills and a list of people who owed the student money.
The student in that case was expelled from school and charged with a number of violations, including trafficking in marijuana. A juvenile court in her home state of New Jersey adjudicated her as being delinquent and placed her on probation. She appealed her conviction, arguing that the search by the school administrator violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
An appeals court agreed with her and further held that the ‘exclusionary rule’ should apply. The exclusionary rule generally holds that any evidence obtained in an illegal search must be eliminated from use at trial. There are several exceptions, but the general theory is that without the exclusionary rule there would be no penalty for violating the constitutional rights of a suspect and thus no deterrent to prevent people from doing so.
The case, New Jersey v. T.L.O., eventually reached the United States Supreme Court in 1985, where the parties argued the issue of whether or not the exclusionary rule applied. But the Court did a highly unusual thing and asked the parties to come back and argue a second, much broader issue- whether the search by the school administrator was a 4th Amendment violation at all.
By a vote of 6-3, in a written opinion by Justice Byron White, the High Court held that school officials were held to a different standard when conducting searches within their schools.
Rather than the ‘probable cause’ standard that applies to law enforcement, a lower ‘reasonable suspicion’ standard applied to the school officials. The Supreme Court upheld the underlying search and the juvenile adjudication that arose from it.
Now, a case from Central Ohio has made its way to the Ohio Supreme Court testing the underlying issue that T.L.O. never answered, namely, does the exclusionary rule apply to searches by school officials? That case involves a Whetstone High School student who left his book bag on the bus. School officials searched the bag and found bullets. They then searched the student and found a gun in another bag.
The student now claims that the search of his bag violated the 4th Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. The 10th District Court of Appeals agreed in a 2-1 ruling last month, and the Ohio Supreme Court has now taken the case. The Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office contends that the search was constitutional but that even if it wasn’t, the exclusionary rule shouldn’t apply to school officials.
The Ohio Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case at 9 a.m. on March 1. You can watch those oral arguments live at https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov.
David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.