PUBLIC SCHOOL LOCKER SEARCH AND REASONABLE EXPECTATION OF PRIVACY
Court of Appeals of Texas Looks at 4th Amendment and 1985 U.S. Supreme Court Case in Decision
by Brian S. Batterton, Attorney
©2011 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
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In a recent case, the Court of Appeals of Texas, Eighth District (El Paso), decided In the Matter of S.M.C.[i] which involved a search of a student’s locker in a public school. Called into question was whether the search of a student’s locker was conducted without any reasonable suspicion and in violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, as well as Article I, Section 9 of the Texas Constitution.
The facts of S.M.C. are as follows:
[O]n or about March 11, 2009, a student at East Montana Middle School informed Ms. Josephine Angerstein-Guzman, an Assistant Principal, that "[Appellant] is high, you might want to check him out." The same student had on a previous occasion discussed with Angerstein-Guzman Appellant's use of drugs before school… Angerstein-Guzman and [Officer] Harrison escorted Appellant to the nurse's office, where nurse's aide Gonzalez was present. Angerstein-Guzman requested that campus security Officer Ponce attend Gonzalez' examination of Appellant. Upon examination, Gonzalez found Appellant's eyes to be red, but did not consider him to be under the influence of drugs. Angerstein-Guzman, who had previous experience in observing individuals with red, glossy, and dilated eyes who were under the influence of drugs, observed Appellant's eyes to be red as well as slightly glossy and dilated. Although Appellant asserted that pink eye and eye drops were the cause of his red eyes, Gonzalez had no parental note indicating that Appellant had pink eye or was otherwise being treated for that ailment. Gonzalez acknowledged that Appellant's red eyes could have resulted from smoking marijuana.
Angerstein-Guzman testified that upon receiving the tip and seeing Appellant's eyes, she suspected that he had used something, even if it was not enough to charge him with being under the influence. She also testified that the school's administration follows through on every tip that comes in. In accordance with school procedure, Angerstein-Guzman continued to investigate the possibility that Appellant was under the influence of or had drugs at school. Angerstein-Guzman explained that when conducting a search, school officials search the person's belongings, backpack, person, pockets and "[i]f there is reasonable suspicion, we go ahead and continue to search lockers [and] vehicles, if we need to[.]" Angerstein-Guzman stated that her training and experience have demonstrated that students hide drugs in shoes, notebooks, backpacks, lockers, and vehicles.
Appellant's notebook was searched for packets or residue of drugs, but none were found. Officer Ponce did a "pat down" search of Appellant for weapons. Appellant was asked to untuck his shirt and run his own fingers along the waistband of his pants, empty and turn out his pockets, and remove his socks and shoes but no drugs were found. Angerstein-Guzman then directed Officers Ponce and Harrison to check Appellant's locker because he may have been hiding drugs there. Appellant was asked to accompany the officers to the locker. Officer Harrison asked Appellant if he had anything illegal in his locker, and Appellant initially said that he did not, but upon arriving at the locker, Appellant informed the officers that he had a belt buckle. As Officer Ponce proceeded to open the locker, Appellant told the officers that he had brass knuckles. As Officer Ponce pulled a backpack from Appellant's locker, Officer Harrison noted that there was something shiny in the backpack. Officer Harrison reached into the backpack and retrieved brass knuckles, a weapon whose possession is prohibited on school premises. Tex. Penal Code Ann. §§ 46.03(a)(1), 46.05(a)(6). No other contraband was discovered in the locker.
The Clint Independent School District's Student Code of Conduct was admitted into evidence along with a receipt signed by Appellant and his mother, acknowledging that they had received, read, and agreed to abide by the Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct provides:
Students shall have a diminished expectation of privacy while under the jurisdiction of the District. School administrators may search a student's outer clothing, pockets, or property by establishing reasonable suspicion or securing the student's voluntary consent. . . . Areas such as lockers, which are owned by the District and jointly controlled by the District and student, may be searched, and school Administrators may routinely conduct blanket locker searches. Students shall not place, keep, or maintain any article or material in school-owned lockers that is forbidden by District Policy or that would lead school officials to reasonably believe that it would cause a substantial disruption on school property or at a school-sponsored function. Students are responsible for any prohibited item found in their possession, in their lockers, or in vehicles parked on school property, and shall be subject to appropriate school disciplinary action in accordance with this CISD Student Code of Conduct and/or [prosecution]…
East Montana Middle School Principal Alfredo Solis testified that school lockers are searched "continuously," and that students are aware of the searches. When random searches are performed at the school, they are typically performed sporadically with the assistance of a dog. [ii]
S.M.C. filed a motion to suppress and argued that the search of his locker violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 9 of the Texas Constitution. The trial court denied the motion and adjudicated S.M.C. delinquent. S.M.C. appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Court of Appeals of Texas, Eighth District, El Paso.
The issue before the court was characterized as whether the search of his locker was conducted without any reasonable suspicion and in violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 9 of the Texas Constitution.
The court then examined New Jersey v. T.L.O. [iii] , the lead United States Supreme Court case regarding the standard to determine the reasonableness of searches conducted in the public school setting. The Supreme Court held that there are two requirements for an in-school search conducted by school personnel to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. First, the search must be justified at its inception. A search is justified at its inception when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school. Second, the scope of the search must be reasonably related to the circumstances which justified the search. This means that the manner and extent of the search must be reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not overly intrusive in light of the nature of the infraction and the age and sex of the student.
On appeal, S.M.C. argued that because Gonzales did not believe that he was under the influence of drugs, and because the tip did not indicate that he was in possession of drug, the search of his person and his locker were not supported by the required reasonable suspicion. The court of appeals, after examining the facts of the case, determined that the initial search of S.M.C. was justified when a known student reported to the assistant principal that S.M.C. was “high.”
Further, after conducting this initial search, Gonzales and Angerstein-Guzman observed that S.M.C.’s eyes were red and his pupils were dilated. Both also testified that they had observed students who had been smoking marijuana with similar physical manifestations. Based upon the tip and these facts, the court stated:
While it is true that no drugs were found during the initial search of Appellant's notebook and clothing, both Gonzalez and Angerstein-Guzman had observed that persons who smoke marijuana thereafter exhibit red eyes with dilated pupils, and Angerstein-Guzman testified that some students hide contraband in the school lockers. Angerstein-Guzman had reasonable grounds for suspecting that a search of Appellant's locker would produce evidence that he was violating school rules, namely that Appellant had contraband in the locker. [iv]
The court of appeals then concluded that the subsequent search of the locker was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that initially justified the search; further they concluded that the search was not excessively intrusive. [v]
The court of appeals then spoke to whether S.M.C. even possessed a reasonable expectation of privacy in his locker. The court stated:
[T]he Code of Conduct informs students and parents that school lockers, which are owned by the school district, may be searched and that students are responsible for any prohibited items, such as knuckles, that are found in his or her school locker. Therefore, the trial court's conclusion that a student, here Appellant, does not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in a school locker was correct. [vi]
As such, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
NOTE: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal advisor regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] No. 08-09-00184-CV, 2011 Tex. App. LEXIS 2069 (Decided March 23, 2011)
[ii] Id. at 2-5
[iii] 469 U.S. 325 (1985)
[iv] S.M.C. at 13
[v] Id. at 13-14
[vi] Id. at 14 (see Shoemaker v. State, 971 S.W.2d 178, 182 (Tex. App. - Beaumont 1998, no pet.) (court of appeals held that a student does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his school locker, which is school property that remains under the control of the school authorities))