Search and Seizure in Schools and Fourth Amendment Rights

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An Overview of the Fourth Amendment

Search and Seizure
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The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to uphold the privacy and security of individual persons against subjective invasions by the government and its officials. When the government violates an individual’s “expectation of privacy”, then an unlawful search has occurred. An individual’s “expectation of privacy” can be defined as whether the individual expects their actions will be free from government intrusion.

The Fourth Amendment requires that searches meet a “reasonableness standard.” Reasonableness can weight on the circumstances surrounding the search and by measuring the search’s overall intrusive nature against the legitimate interests of the government. A search will be unreasonable any time the government cannot prove that it was necessary. The government must show that there was “probable cause” for a search to be deemed “Constitutional”.​

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Searches without Warrants

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The courts have recognized that there are environments and circumstances that will require an exception to the “probable cause” standard. These are called “special needs exceptions” which do allow searches without warrants. These type searches must have a “presumption of reasonableness” since there is no warrant.

An example of the special needs exception occurs in the court case, Terry v Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). In this case, the Supreme Court established a special needs exception that justified a police officer’s warrantless search for weapons. This case also had a profound impact on the special need exception especially in relation to probable cause and warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court from this case developed four factors that “trigger” the special needs exception to the Fourth Amendment. Those four factors include:

  • Is the individual’s expectation of privacy violated by the overall intrusiveness of the search?
  • What is the relationship between the individual(s) being searched and the person(s) conducting the search?
  • Did the deliberate nature of the action leading to the search diminish the individual’s expectation of privacy?
  • Is the interest of the government to be advanced by the search “compelling”?
  • Is the need for the search immediate and does the search provide a higher opportunity for success than other possible alternatives?
  • Would the government risk the conduct of the search without rhyme or reason?
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Search and Seizure Cases

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There are many search and seizure cases that shaped the process concerning schools. The Supreme Court applied the “special needs” exception to a public school environment in the case, New Jersey v T.L.O., supra (1985). In this case, the Court decided that the warrant requirement was not suitable for a school setting primarily because it would interfere with a school’s need to expedite a school’s informal disciplinary procedures quickly.

T.L.O., supra centered around females students who were found smoking in a school bathroom. An administrator searched a student’s purse and found cigarettes, rolling papers, marijuana, and drug paraphernalia. The Court found that the search was justified at its inception because there were reasonable grounds that a search would find evidence of a student’s violation or a law or school policy. The court also concluded in that ruling that a school has the power to implement a certain amount of control and supervision over students that would be deemed unconstitutional if exerted on an adult.

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Reasonable Suspicion in Schools

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Most student searches in schools begin as a result of some reasonable suspicion by a school district employee that the student has violated a law or school policy. In order to have reasonable suspicion, a school employee must have facts that support the suspicions are true. A justifiable search is one in which a school employee:

  1. Has made specific observations or knowledge.
  2. Had rational inferences that were supported by all observations and facts found and collected.
  3. Explained how the available facts and rational inferences provided an objective basis for suspicion when combined with the training and experience of the school employee.

The information or knowledge possessed by the school employee must come from a valid and reliable source to be considered reasonable. These sources can include the employee’s personal observations and knowledge, reliable reports of other school officials, reports of eyewitnesses and victims, and/or informant tips. The suspicion must be based on facts and weighted so that the probability is sufficient enough that the suspicion may be true.

A justifiable student search must include each of the following components:

  1. Reasonable suspicion must exist that a particular student has committed or is committing a violation of law or school policy.
  2. There must be a direct connection between what is being sought and the suspected infraction.
  3. There must be a direct connection between what is being sought and the place to be searched.

In general, school officials cannot search a large group of students just because they suspect that a policy has been violated, but have been unable to connect the violation to a particular student. However, there are court cases that have allowed such large group searches particularly concerning the suspicion of someone possessing a dangerous weapon, which jeopardizes the safety of the student body.

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Drug Testing in Schools

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There have been several high-profile cases dealing with random drug testing in schools particularly when it comes to athletics or extracurricular activities. The Supreme Court’s landmark decision on drug testing came in Vernonia School District 47J v Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995). Their decision found that the district’s student athletic drug policy which authorized random urinalysis drug testing of students who participated in its athletic programs was constitutional. This decision established four factors that subsequent courts have looked at when hearing similar cases. Those include:

  1. Privacy Interest – The Veronia Court found that schools require close supervision of children to provide a proper educational environment. In addition, they have the ability to enforce rules against students for something that would be permissible for an adult. Subsequently, school authorities act in loco parentis, which is Latin for, in place of the parent. Further, the Court ruled that a student’s expectation of privacy is less than a normal citizen and even less if an individual is a student-athlete who have reasons to expect intrusions.
  2. The degree of Intrusion – The Veronia Court decided that the degree of intrusion would depend upon the manner in which the production of the urine sample was monitored.
  3. Nature of Immediacy of the School’s Concern – The Veronia Court found that deterring drug use among students established proper concern by the district.
  4. Less Intrusive Means – The Veronia Court ruled that district’s policy was constitutional and appropriate.
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School Resource Officers

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School Resource Officers are also often certified law enforcement officers. A “law enforcement officer” must have “probable cause” to conduct a lawful search, but a school employee only has to establish “reasonable suspicion”. If the request from the search was directed by a school administrator, then the SRO may conduct the search on “reasonable suspicion”. However, if that search is conducted because of law enforcement information, then it must be made on “probable cause”. The SRO also needs to consider whether the subject of the search was in violation of a school policy. If the SRO is an employee of the school district, then “reasonable suspicion” will be the more likely reason to conduct a search. Finally, the location and circumstance of the search should be taken into account.

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Drug Sniffing Dog

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A “dog sniff” is not a search within the meaning of Fourth Amendment. Thus no probable cause is required for a drug sniffing dog when used in this sense. Court rulings have declared that persons should have no reasonable expectations of privacy in regards to the air surrounding inanimate objects. This makes student lockers, student automobiles, backpacks, book bags, purses, etc. that are not physically on the student permissible for a drug dog to sniff. If a dog does “hit” on contraband then that establishes probable cause for a physical search to take place. Courts have frowned upon the use of drug-sniffing dogs to search the air around a student’s physical person.

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School Lockers

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Students have no “reasonable expectation of privacy” in their school lockers, so long the school has a published student policy that lockers are under the supervision of the school and that the school also has ownership over those lockers. Having such policy in place allows a school employee, to conduct generalized searches of a student’s locker regardless of whether there is suspicion or not.

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Vehicle Search in Schools

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A vehicle search can occur with student vehicles which are parked on school grounds can be searched so long as there is reasonable suspicion to conduct a search. If an item such as drugs, alcoholic beverage, weapon, etc. that violates a school policy is in plain view, a school administrator may always search the vehicle. A school policy stating that vehicles parked on school grounds are subject to search would be beneficial to cover liability if the issue ever arises.

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Metal Detectors

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Walk through metal detectors have been deemed minimally invasive and have been ruled constitutional. A hand held metal detector can be used to search any student with which there is reasonable suspicion that they may have something harmful on their persons. In addition, the Court has upheld rulings that a hand held metal detector may be used to search every student and their possessions as they enter the school building. However, a random use of a hand held metal detector without reasonable suspicion is not recommended.

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Your Citation
Meador, Derrick. "Search and Seizure in Schools and Fourth Amendment Rights." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, Meador, Derrick. (2021, September 3). Search and Seizure in Schools and Fourth Amendment Rights. Retrieved from Meador, Derrick. "Search and Seizure in Schools and Fourth Amendment Rights." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).