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.