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When can a student be searched at school?


There's no better place to start than at the beginning. So as the school year begins, I am starting this blog. I'll be writing about timely criminal law questions and sharing what I hope will be useful information for those who either personally or through loved ones encounter the criminal justice process. Staying with the theme, for my first post, I'll look at searches in schools.

The U.S. Constitution protects students against unreasonable searches. This post examines two categories where a student may be searched at school: first, a search of the student herself, her locker, backpack, or vehicle; and second, a search of a student’s dorm room. If your student becomes subject to a search by school officials or law enforcement, you should consult with a lawyer as soon as possible.

Outside of the school environment, law enforcement officials generally must have probable cause to conduct a search. But within the school environment, the standard is lower: if a school official has reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, a student, her locker, desk, backpack, or car may be searched by school officials without a warrant. The courts have explained that the lesser standard is due to the substantial interest of teachers and administrators in maintaining discipline in the classroom and on school grounds, and that the students who are being searched, or whose property is being searched, are usually unemancipated minors required by compulsory attendance laws to attend classes.

The reasonable suspicion standard requires school officials, at the time of the search, to be aware of specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the intrusion. Additionally, the scope of the search must be reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not be excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction. As an example of an excessive search, the U.S. Supreme Court previously decided that a strip search of a student for suspicion of selling prescription medication was unreasonable.

A different standard applies to the search of a college dorm room. In a Texas case decided this summer, the Court of Criminal Appeals determined that the reasonable suspicion standard discussed above does not apply in this context. In that case, the city police searched a student’s dorm room after university resident advisors (RA's) notified the police department that they had discovered marijuana and ecstasy in the room during an administrative inspection. The RA's had the contractual right to inspect the student's room and did so without consulting law enforcement. The Court of Criminal Appeals determined that generally, law enforcement must have a warrant supported by probable cause before conducting a search of a residential dorm room. That was so, the court held, even though the resident advisors had the contractual right to inspect the room and had already discovered the contraband that was prohibited by school rules. Because no exception to the warrant requirement applied under these facts, the Court of Criminal Appeals excluded evidence from the search because the city police agency entered the dorm room without a warrant.

In summary, the reasonableness of a particular search will depend on the facts and circumstances, including the location searched, the reasons for the search, and the extensiveness of the search. Whether a warrant is required (such as in a college dorm) will depend on the location of the search and the privacy or possessory interest of the student in the place searched. A court will review the circumstances and determine whether the search was justified from the beginning, and whether the scope of the search was reasonable in light of the purpose of the search.

This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The reader is strongly urged to consult with counsel for an opinion on a particular fact situation.

I can be reached for questions on this and other criminal search issues at 281-513-9880 or lewis@lewisthomaslawpc.com.

©2020 BY LEWIS THOMAS LAW PC.