Sunday, March 31, 2013

Court clarifies standard for student cell phone search

In a case applicable to Ohio, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that school officials search of text messages on a student's cellphone was unreasonable and violated the student's rights under the Fourth Amendment. The case involved a student who had been seen by a teacher texting in class, a violation of school rules. The teacher turned the phone over to an assistant principal, who read the student's text messages on the phone. The assistant principal later testified that she knew of the student's prior discipline issues and was looking "to see if there was an issue with which I could help him so that he would not do something harmful to himself or someone else." The school, then, expelled the student, considering the cell phone violation the student's final chance in a series of disciplinary violations. The student and his family then sued the school in federal court, alleging, among other claims, a violation of the 4th Amendment. Relying on the 1985 Supreme Court case New Jersey v. T.L.O., the appeals court said "[a] search is justified at its inception if there is reasonable suspicion that a search will uncover evidence of further wrongdoing or of injury to the student or another." "Not all infractions involving cellphones will present such indications. Moreover, even assuming that a search of the phone were justified, the scope of the search must be tailored to the nature of the infraction and must be related to the objectives of the search." Further, "[u]nder our two-part test, using a cellphone on school grounds does not automatically trigger an essentially unlimited right enabling a school official to search any content stored on the phone that is not related either substantively or temporally to the infraction," the court held. "We disagree...that general background knowledge of drug abuse or depressive tendencies, without more, enables a school official to search a student's cell phone when a search would otherwise be unwarranted," Accordingly, going forward, it is unlikely that a student caught using his phone in class, without more, can legally have his phone searched by school officials.