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Florida Court Backs School Search For Gun Based on Anonymous Tip

A recent state court ruling backs the ability of school administrators and security personnel to rely on anonymous tips to thwart potential school violence. 

Citing the nationwide record of deadly mass school shootings over the last 15 years, the majority on a Florida appellate court said that "protecting students from gun violence is entitled to substantial weight" when judging the reasonableness of school searches.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal late last month upheld the search of a student's backpack for a gun based on an anonymous tip to the "gun bounty" program of the Miami-Dade County police department. The tipster had said that a student at Miami Northwestern Senior High School possibly had a gun in his possession at school.

A school resource officer confirmed that the student named in the tip (identified in court papers as K.P.) attended the high school and then informed the assistant principal and school security guards, who went to K.P.'s classroom. They took possession of the student's book bag and escorted him to the principal's conference room. The assistant principal handed over the book bag to the SRO, who searched it without a warrant and found a loaded, semiautomatic handgun.

K.P., whose age or grade wasn't noted in the court opinion, was charged as a juvenile with carrying a concealed weapon and other firearms charges. He sought to exclude the gun from evidence as the product of an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. A trial judge denied that motion and withheld full adjudication, but imposed 15 days of secure detention and one year of probation on K.P.

In K.P.'s appeal to the mid-level state appellate court, the key issue was the reliability of the anonymous tip that led to the school search.

In its 2-1 decision on Dec. 26 in K.P. v. Florida, the state court cited U.S. Supreme Court cases that require "indicators of reliability" for anonymous tips to support police searches.

"An anonymous tip like the one at issue may not constitute a sufficiently reliable indicator that a crime was occurring to justify a search of K.P. by police officers on a public street," the Florida court said. "However, the level of reliability required to justify a search is lower when the tip concerns possession by a student of a firearm in a public school classroom."

The state court discusses the Supreme Court's 2000 decision in Florida v. J.L., which held that a stop-and-frisk search of a teenager on the street was not justified by the level of corroborating detail provided by the anonymous tipster in that case. But the high court said its ruling with respect to an anonymous tip regarding potential street crime might not apply to the same circumstances in a school.

Writing for a unanimous high court in that case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the justices were not ruling that "public safety officials in quarters where the reasonable expectation of Fourth Amendment privacy is diminished, such as airports and schools, cannot conduct protective searches on the basis of information insufficient to justify searches elsewhere."

In the recent case, the Florida appellate court majority took account of that ruling as well as the Supreme Court's key school decisions involving the Fourth Amendment, particularly its 1985 decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O., establishing the "reasonable suspicion" standard for school searches of students.

"A tip in these circumstances—a gun in a classroom—justifies searches on the basis of information insufficient to justify searches elsewhere," Judge Thomas Logue wrote for the majority. "In this regard, while the school official did not know for certain that the book bag contained a gun, he was not operating on a mere 'hunch.' The anonymous tip at issue contained indicia of reliability. It accurately identified a student by name, K.P., and the specific school he attended. This aspect of the tip limited the discretion of school officials concerning who could be searched."

Writing in dissent, Judge Linda Ann Wells said that in this case, "no reasonable suspicion existed to support the warrantless search of K.P.'s backpack. Standing alone, the uncorroborated, unenhanced anonymous tip received by the school in this case was legally insufficient to satisfy that standard."

The tip would have justified removing K.P. from class for questioning and for closer examination of the exterior of his book bag, she said. 

"Had such actions been taken and resulted in information or observations which would reasonably support a determination that K.P. either had been or was violating the law or school rules, then a search of K.P.'s backpack would have been justified from its inception," Judge Wells said.

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