Massachusetts Court Affirms: People On School Campuses Still Have Fourth Amendment Rights

from the students-are-still-American-citizens dept

The Massachusetts Supreme Court has reaffirmed the fact that students (and other people on school campuses) don’t have location-based Constitutional rights. A pat-frisk of a nonstudent by a police officer on a school’s campus resulted in the warrantless search of his backpack and the discovery of marijuana, a scale, and a handgun. All of these items may as well have never existed at all, thanks to the officer having zero reasonable suspicion to perform the frisk, much less the probable cause to search the backpack.

Police investigating a suspicious person in a school must have evidence the person committed a crime before they can conduct a pat-frisk, and must have a warrant before searching a backpack for firearms, the state’s highest court ruled Tuesday.

The issue split the Supreme Judicial Court, 5 to 2, with now-retired Justice Geraldine S. Hines, a former defense attorney, writing for the majority that the right to privacy under both the state and federal constitutions is undiminished in a school setting, even when it comes to people who are not students.

“We do not underestimate the threat of violence in schools and other public places. Recent history bears out the folly of doing so,’’ Hines wrote. But “nothing in the Fourth Amendment or our [Article 14 of the state Constitution] jurisprudence supports such limitations on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.”

The decision [PDF] details the events leading to the unconstitutional search. Basically, school officials detained a nonstudent, acting on their hunches, which they conveyed to the officer. The officer – who had no contact with the subject before being placed in the same room as him — proceeded to frisk him and search his bag.

We acknowledge that the defendant, a nonstudent, was on school property surrounded by school officials who believed he possessed contraband of some sort. When Murphy arrived, however, she knew only that school officials had a male nonstudent detained in the conference room and that the police had been called for assistance in the matter. See Commonwealth v. Mendez, 476 Mass. 512, 515 (2017). The principal voiced his strong suspicions of the defendant, but neither he nor the vice-principal reported any conduct suggestive of criminal activity. The odor of marijuana, which Murphy appreciated upon her entry into the conference room, also was not sufficient to support reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

The court notes Fourth Amendment protections are lowered when students are detained and searched by school officials. But the same standards that apply off school grounds apply to law enforcement officers searching students/nonstudents on school grounds.

The court also points out the smell of marijuana indicates nothing about whether or not a person is armed, thus eliminating warrant exceptions arising from officer safety.

The principal’s unsubstantiated hunch that the defendant “had something on him,” alone, was insufficient for a reasonable belief that the defendant was armed and dangerous, especially where the principal had invited the defendant to return to the school, the defendant had already emptied his pockets at the principal’s direction, and the reasonable inference was that the principal believed that the defendant had marijuana or some other controlled substance on his person based on the strong odor of marijuana present in the room.

In conclusion, hunches from non-law enforcement personnel can’t morph into probable cause for a search just because they’ve been relayed to an officer.

Moreover, the principal’s hunch combined with Murphy’s observations of the defendant’s nervousness and Murphy’s testimony that both the principal and the vice-principal appeared to be “rattled” still did not establish a reasonable belief that the defendant was armed and dangerous where the defendant was compliant and did not make any furtive gestures or reach into his pockets in a manner that would suggest that he was carrying a weapon.

What this decision does is remind school police officers the Fourth Amendment is still a viable thing, even on school campuses. Fortunately, the department whose officer performed the illegal search appears to be supportive of the Supreme Judicial Court’s findings

Milton Police Chief John E. King credited his officers and school officials for “acting in the best interest of students and staff safety. They had to make a quick decision based on facts known to them at the time.”

He said in an e-mail that their instincts turned out to be correct “as this individual did in fact possess alcohol, drugs, and a loaded firearm inside a school building.”

But he also said he recognized “that the end does not justify the means. I fully respect the legal process and the SJC’s decision.”

The Commonwealth can still attempt to obtain a conviction. But it won’t be able to use the evidence it obtained unconstitutionally. Considering that’s pretty much all of it, the decision to bypass the Fourth Amendment has effectively allowed a nonstudent to walk onto campus with a handgun and drugs and get away with it.

The court recognizes schools have a compelling interest in providing safe campuses, but if they’re going to bring outside help in to police the school, many of the outside rules will apply.

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Comments on “Massachusetts Court Affirms: People On School Campuses Still Have Fourth Amendment Rights”

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ThaumaTechnician (profile) says:

Re: Re:

From my first cursory reading of the decision, which you should have done before asking the question, it doesn’t address the school officials’ behaviour.

The ruling is about the police officer’s behaviour. Essentially, the officer, who is “”school[ed] . . . in the niceties of probable cause” and other constitutional requirements.” should have gotten a warrant, especially since the officer (and school officials) weren’t in any immediate danger.

JoeCool (profile) says:

More probably

This was parallel construction. Illegal surveillance determined he was probably selling drugs, so they told the school officials to make up a story about smelling drugs. Seriously, unless he was smoking a joint in the room, there would be no “strong odor of marijuana” in the room. If he had smoked one earlier, they MIGHT be able to smell it if they got right in his face. As to the marijuana in his backpack, it was in his backpack, and almost certainly in one or more SEALED containers (ziplock bag, most likely). If you’re going to lie, at least make it somewhat believable.

Advocate (profile) says:

Re: More probably

And then there was that time that i had been burning marijuana scented incense in my friend’s car and had a High Times in plain view in the back seat, and couldn’t find the incense when i got pulled over for not stopping fully at a stop sign.. and then there was the pot in the glove compartment that i honestly thought she left at home when i agreed to the search :/ true story. (they stole my shit and let me go 🙁 )

Anonymous Coward says:

Still shit

Glad to see that some of the 4th was upheld but…

“The court notes Fourth Amendment protections are lowered when students are detained and searched by school officials.”

I don’t send my kids to public school because of this. It only teaches them obedience to “authority”.

“What this decision does is remind school police officers the Fourth Amendment is still a viable thing, even on school campuses.”

Yea TD, this is complete bullshit. It reminds the police of nothing. They already KNOW that evidence may be suppressed by the court for their antics and they do it anyway. It will not be until police are criminally charged for constitutional breaches and judges start holding DA’s in contempt for trying to introduce evidence already known to have been collected without a warrant and therefore at risk for being under false pretense.

We have fallen far, we don’t have much farther to go.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Sorry, but the 4th was not upheld, the accused merely gets off on a technicality.

The accused was still unlawfully detained, illegally searched, and illegally arrested and nothing is going to happen to the officer involved. If said person was in a delicate PR role they would have likely lost their job.

If someone robs a bank and escapes with zero cash they get go to fucking jail, but an officer can rob your liberty, cash, property, dignity and completely escape justice!

Anonymous Coward says:

Wouldn’t he have been guilty of trespassing on school grounds? Isn’t that enough to arrest / search someone? The article says he asked to leave but was told to wait for police and that eliminated the possibility of prosecuting him for trespassing. So I can trespass anywhere I want and just have to ask to leave and I can’t be prosecuted? While I agree just being on school grounds isn’t automatically suspicious or worthy of a search; he lied to gain entry, lied about why he was there, and continued to be on school grounds after being challenged and leaving the building. I would say that is worthy of a search. As far as being detained by school officials, what were they supposed to do? A person smelling of drugs and alcohol lied to get into the building and then was mingling with students as they were leaving the school “looking for a girl who’s name he didn’t know”. They “steered” him to a conference room away from students and waited for the police. I’d say that is pretty reasonable. How does asking to leave negate all his previous behavior? As far as knowingly trespassing, the doors were locked and he had to lie to get in so he had to know he wasn’t allowed to be there. My main question is why it took so long for police to get there. As soon as I realized an unauthorized person had lied to gain access to the school I would be calling 911.

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