Sorry Kid, The Full Force of the Fourth Amendment is for Grownups

By William Peacock, Esq. on March 05, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

CM was in class when the drug dogs showed up. Along with his classmates, he was instructed to leave the classroom and his belongings for five minutes. When he returned, he claimed that he "felt like the pockets [of his backpack] had been unzipped and stuff."

The police were not there for him, nor for any other specific person. They were conducting random searches. Central High School of Springfield, Missouri had been experiencing a bit of a drug problem and the solution devised by the administration was to invite the K-9 Cops. The found nothing and left.

CM, and his parents, sued for the unreasonable seizure of his belongings during the five minute search.

If you've been paying attention to recent jurisprudence, there's a legal trend toward cutting down on students' Fourth Amendment protections due to the need to provide a safe and studious environment. However, even in light of those cases, this one wasn't as clear as one might think.

In Doe v. Little Rock School District, the Eighth Circuit concluded that a school's search was unconstitutional when staff required students to leave their belongings behind and searched by hand. Unfortunately for CM, the court also hinted that less invasive searches would probably be fine.

That was their exact ruling here. The Supreme Court has repeatedly (in those recent cases we mentioned earlier) reinforced the government interest in keeping drugs out of schools (and students).

Here, the school randomly selected areas of the premises, only separated the kids from their belongings for five minutes, and did not search by hand unless there were two detections by a drug and weapons sniffing dog. Even assuming that a seizure did occur, the procedures utilized made it reasonable.

Government interests and narrowly tailored? Sounds like basic constitutional analysis, though the court didn't label which level of scrutiny applied.

In dueling concurrences, Judges Loken and Colloton debated whether there was an actual seizure here. Loken points out the seminal language of Jacobsen which requires "meaningful interference with an individual's possessory interest in that property."

Loken didn't feel that five minutes apart from one's backpack qualified as meaningful, especially since past Eighth Circuit cases have not found violations when an officer temporarily removed a person's luggage from a bus and another case where the defendant's computers were seized while he was in custody and a warrant was pending.

Colloton wrote a second concurrence for the express purpose of addressing Loken's "unnecessary" argument. While conceding that a case could be made that a seizure did not occur, he did not agree that the issue was clear, citing recent cases that side-stepped the issue. He felt that the prudent course was the one undertaken by the majority: avoiding the issue altogether.

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