Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Student search by school official constitutional even if tip came from law enforcement, appeals court rules

A divided Fifth District Court of Appeals held today that the search of a student for drugs was constitutional, even though the school official who searched the student was given the tip by a law enforcement officer.

In that case, an assistant principal was given a tip by a deputy sheriff stationed inside the school that a student in the school may have been dealing heroin. The assistant principal then requested that the student come to the office with his bookbag. The assistant principal and the deputy sheriff both testified that the school official did so at the school official's sole request, and not at the behest of the deputy sheriff. During the search, drugs were found and the student was subsequently prosecuted.

The legal question to be answered by the court was what standard was required to justify the search. Generally, school officials can conduct searches when they believe that school rules and regulations have been violated, so long as the search is reasonable under the circumstances. This is a much more relaxed standard than the probable cause standard, which is generally required to conduct most searches.

The student had argued that, because the search was initiated as a result of the law enforcement officer tipping off the assistant principal, the probable cause standard should control. However, the prosecution argued, and the trial court held, that because the school official was working independently, and not at the behest of, the law enforcement officer, the reasonableness standard should prevail.

The Court of Appeals, 2-1, agreed with the trial court that the lower "reasonableness" standard should control. Because, in its opinion, the search was reasonable under the circumstances, the search of the student was constitutional.

The Fifth District Court of Appeals handles cases from Ashland, Coshocton, Delaware, Fairfield, Guernsey, Holmes, Knox, Licking, Morgan, Morrow, Muskingum, Perry, Richland, Stark and Tuscarawas Counties.

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