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Searches of Students Who Leave and Return to School Upheld

A high school's policy of searching students who leave the campus and return during the school day does not violate the Fourth Amendment, a California state appellate court has ruled.

The court ruled in the case of a student who challenged a search conducted by the assistant principal that turned up a plastic bag with 44 pills of the illegal drug Ecstasy. The student, identified in court papers as Sean A., had been recorded as present for one of his classes and absent from others. When he was observed returning to the school campus, the assistant principal required him to empty his pockets.

The Southern California school, which isn't identified in the juvenile court case, has a student behavior policy that says students who go "out of bounds"—off campus or to school parking lots and athletic areas—are subject to being searched.

Sean A. sought to suppress the drug evidence found in the search, arguing that the school's policy violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. A juvenile court judge rejected the claim, and the student was given probation on a charge of possessing a controlled substance for sale.

In a Dec. 22 ruling, a panel of the California Court of Appeal ruled 2-1 to uphold the search and the school's policy.

"Given the general application of the policy to all students engaged in a form of rule violation that can easily lend itself to the introduction of drugs or weapons into the school environment, we conclude that further individualized suspicion was not required," says the majority opinion in In Re Sean A.

The majority said a 1998 California Court of Appeal ruling that upheld suspicionless random weapons screening in schools supported the legality of the policy on searching students who leave and return to campus. And the policy serves the same interests cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in two cases that upheld suspicionless drug testing of student athletes, in Vernonia School District v. Acton, and of participants in competititve extracurricular activities, in Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 v. Earls.

The dissenting judge said the search policy does not prevent students from bringing contraband to school at the start of the day, and that it appears to have been adopted more to discourage students from bringing food to campus than to deter drugs and weapons.

"In my view, my colleagues undertake a far-reaching and unprecedented expansion of Fourth Amendment doctrine by concluding that Vernonia and Earls authorize a high school to adopt a policy subjecting students returning to campus to suspicionless searches," the dissent said.

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