When can school officials search students for drugs?
Under some circumstances, public school officials can legally search students. The test is whether, considering all of the circumstances:
1. the official had a reasonable suspicion that the search would turn up evidence of a crime or violation of school rules;
2. the scope of the search was reasonable, based on what the official suspected when the search began; and
3. the need to maintain order in the school outweighed the student’s legitimate right to personal privacy.
This test reflects the fact that students have weaker constitutional rights on school grounds than they do in other situations. Outside of school, the search would generally be performed by a police officer who had obtained a court warrant after satisfying a judge that it was probable that the search would lead to evidence of a crime.
Many court cases arise from claims that a search for drugs violated a student’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The school and the officials who conducted a search for drugs will be liable if (1) their suspicion that they would find drugs or paraphernalia in the target’s pockets or shoes was not reasonable, (2) the items searched were not reasonable in light of the misconduct suspected, and (3) the official’s interest in keeping drugs out of school did not outweigh the student’s interest in personal privacy.
How strong must school officials’ suspicions be in order to conduct such searches?
Unlike searches in other situations, school officials can search students for drugs when they have reasonable suspicion that the search will uncover evidence of wrongdoing. Reasonable suspicion is a lower evidentiary standard than probable cause. The difference between the two is that reasonable suspicion means that the facts known before initiating a search make it moderately likely that the search will find evidence of wrongdoing. In contrast, probable cause requires that the facts known make it probable that the search will turn up evidence of the commission of a crime.
In addition to being supported by reasonable suspicion, searches must be reasonably related to their objectives and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the seriousness of the suspected wrongdoing. In a recent case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that it was illegal to strip search a 12-year-old girl suspected of giving tablets of ibuprophen to other students. The justices indicated that taking into account all the circumstances, the indignity suffered by strip searching an adolescent girl outweighed the school’s interest in conducting an intrusive search looking for a small quantity of over-the-counter pain relievers.
Can school officials make students turn out their pockets and take off their shoes?
The official could ask the police to perform the search, but the officer would most likely have to first get a search warrant based on probable cause. A student who refuses to submit to a search can still be suspended or expelled from school for insubordination or refusing to comply with school policy.
This case was not handled by our firm. However, if you have any questions regarding this case, or any education matter, please contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.
As parents, many of the lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C. have experienced first-hand in their own families the ever expanding intersection of educational policy and rule of law, and the conflicts that sometimes result. As education attorneys, we have an in-depth understanding and appreciation of the respective rights and obligations of students and school administrators. Through training and experience we are especially qualified to act as knowledgeable advisors and zealous advocates to protect student rights and thereby preserve (at least to the extent evolutionarily possible) parents’ peace of mind. For a free initial consultation, call the education law attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C. today at 203-221-3100, or email Joseph Maya, Esq. at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.