School Searches

A public school teacher is a government agent. However, the rules that apply when a school teacher (or other public school administrator) searches a student’s property are very different than the rules that apply to a police officer. The standard for a teacher to search is reasonableness instead of probable cause. If a teacher reasonably believes a student is either breaking the law or violating school rules (even if the violation of school rules is not a crime), a warrantless search is appropriate. Importantly, the warrant requirement will not be relaxed (and the reasonableness standard will not be employed) if the school officials are acting in concert with, or under the direction of, the police.

Reasonableness has been somewhat difficult to define. What the cases have illustrated is that the standard allows for teachers to rely on hunches rather than articulable evidence. The reasonableness analysis also considers the type of rule infraction, the age and gender of the student, and the intrusiveness of the search. Courts have upheld the searches of students’ jackets, purses, and lockers when school officials reasonably believe the student has violated a law or a rule. Courts have viewed favorably situations where schools have followed their own written policies in executing searches of students’ property.

Once contraband has been found on a student, schools often involve the police. It is usually a police officer, and not a school administrator, who questions a student who is found to possess illegal items. Are there special procedures the police must follow in the interrogation of a juvenile?

Interested Adult Rule

If the police are questioning a juvenile under the age of 14, an “interested adult” must be present to advise the juvenile of his rights and help the juvenile decide whether it makes sense to talk to the police. An interested adult is usually a parent or guardian, but it also can be a person who has a relationship with the juvenile and who is “sufficiently interested” in the juvenile’s welfare to help the juvenile make good decisions. Once the interested adult is present, the police must inform the adult and the juvenile of the juvenile’s Miranda rights and then allow the adult and the juvenile to speak privately to decide whether the juvenile will make a statement to the police. The rules are similar for children between the ages of 14 and 17. The police are obligated to contact an interested adult before the start of questioning and the juvenile and the adult must be given a genuine opportunity to meaningfully consult. The adult does not necessarily need to be physically present for the interview but must be immediately available by phone.

Cases involving juveniles are interesting in that juveniles are afforded fewer rights related to the physical searches (the reasonableness standard rather than probable cause), but greater rights related to statements they might make to the police. School searches often raise interesting suppression issues. If your child has been charged with a crime based on the results of a warrantless school search, you should immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to review your case.

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