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Top N.D. Court Upholds Resource Officer's Search of Student

A North Dakota school resource officer's search of a student that turned up illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia was reasonable under the legal standard for searches by school officials and did not have to meet the higher threshold of probable cause, the state's highest court has ruled.

The unanimous decision by the North Dakota Supreme Court is an important one on the status of school resource officers, police officers who are typically stationed in schools and work closely with school administrators on student-safety matters.

Under a 1985 decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O., the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment applies to searches by school officials, but that they need only meet the reasonableness standard. The federal high court has not ruled on the status of school resource officers, but as the North Dakota Supreme Court outlines in its opinion, lower courts have generally held that the reasonableness standard also applies to a student search by a school resource officer acting on his own initiative or at the behest of school administrators. Only when a student search was initiated by "outside" police officers has the Fourth Amendment's probable-cause standard been applied.

In the North Dakota case, a school security guard (not the resource officer) in February 2011 noticed student Christian Antonio Alaniz Jr. acting suspiciously in an area near an unidentified Grand Forks high school known for drug use. School resource officer Troy Vanyo of the Grand Forks police department observed Alaniz and another student from a patrol car and also concluded he was acting suspiciously.

Later, Vanyo and an associate principal escorted Alaniz, who was 18 at the time, into a school detention room. Without delivering a Miranda warning, Vanyo told the student that if he had "anything on him," he should lay it on the table before them, court papers say. Alaniz's emptied pockets yielded a glass pipe and synthetic marijuana. He was charged in a North Dakota court with felony possession of a controlled substance and drug paraphernalia.

Alaniz entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving his right to challenge the search as a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

In its April 10 decision in State of North Dakota v. Alaniz, the state's high court agreed with the trial court that the school resource officer's search of the student was reasonable.

"Here, Vanyo was acting based on information from school officials, there was no involvement from outside police officers, and the school principal questioned Alaniz and decided how to handle the situation. Under the facts and circumstances of this case, we conclude the reasonableness standard applies," said the opinion by Chief Justice Gerald W. VandeWalle.

The search was justified at its inception based on observations by Vanyo and the school security guard, the court said.

"There was a moderate chance the search would turn up evidence Alaniz was violating the law or school rules by possessing controlled substances," the court said. "The search also was not excessively intrusive in light of Alaniz's age, gender, and nature of the suspicion. Alaniz was 18 years old. He was not physically searched. Alaniz emptied his pockets after Vanyo told him he should put anything he had on the table. We conclude the search was reasonable and the district court did not err in denying Alaniz's motion to suppress."

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