We've all seen enough crime shows to know what to do if the police knock on your door and demand to search your property: stand, look indignant and demand to see their warrant. After all, it's your property, and unless you give permission or a judge orders the search, you should have control over what you have, right? Yes—provided you're not a student. If you're in a school environment, teachers and administrators can search without either permission or a warrant. Even so, students still have rights, and knowing which searches are illegal might just save your child some time in front of the school board.
The Supreme Court early on decided that need by teachers and administrators to maintain order outweighs the privacy interests of students in a case called New Jersey v. TLO. But that does not mean that school officials can just search anybody at any time. School searches are only justified according to the Supreme Court "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 school."
California's own state Supreme Court has expanded upon the ruling by stating that "reasonable grounds" must be supported by "articulable facts." Random searches and searches based on hunches or rumors are not justified.
The US Supreme Court has also stated that the manner in which the search is conducted must be "reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction." Okay so what exactly does that mean?
It is difficult to state beforehand whether or not a particular search is reasonable. Some searches are clearly illegal, for example, if a teacher searches a student's locker on a hunch or for no reason. If a teacher suspects that a person has contraband only in his locker, then a search of that student's backpack probably isn't justified either. However, these rules are not hard and fast. Since most cases search cases are complicated, with factors that justify and nullify the search at the same time, the courts consider each case individually.
The following is a list of some questions the courts consider to determine whether or not a search of a student or school locker is reasonable:
If a search was conducted illegally, then the contents of the search may be suppressed in a criminal action. Students only have this right with respect to criminal prosecutions. Whereas an American adult must obey the laws of the government, the student must obey the laws of the school board. In Gordon v. Santa Ana Unified School District, marijuana was found in an illegal search of the student's pockets by the principal. After a school board hearing, the student was suspended from school for one year. Although the search was found to be illegal by the courts and the student did not face criminal prosecution, he could not suppress the evidence at the school board hearing. As such, his suspension was upheld.
Practically speaking, it is never a good idea for a student to keep contraband on themselves, in their purses or backpacks, on in their lockers. However, a search is conducted without their consent, and they are prosecuted as a result of that search, then the best thing to do is to consult with an attorney that has experience in criminal law. An experienced attorney can offer sound advice on whether the search can be attacked and the evidence suppressed.