Students Have Rights: Court Dumps Evidence After Cops Rely On A Month-Old Anonymous Tip To Search A Minor

from the striking-cold-irons-still-counterproductive dept

As courts seemingly have to remind school administrators (and their partners in unconstitutional crime, school police officers), students — even minors — still have constitutional rights. The First and Fourth Amendments are the most frequently violated, despite there being no lack of precedent upholding students’ rights.

This latest rebuke of law enforcement overreach comes via the Colorado Court of Appeals (and via FourthAmendment.com). In this case, a Denver, Colorado student had his backpack warrantlessly searched by school security officers. This search resulted in the discovery of marijuana and paraphernalia, which led to juvenile charges against the minor, referred to in the opinion [PDF] as “C.C-S.”

The reason the search was unconstitutional has a lot to do with how the school officers got it into their heads that C.C-S. should be detained and searched. The state of Colorado maintains an anonymous tip line called “Safe2Tell” which allows students and faculty to report suspicious activity or behavior to school officials.

The Safe2Tell tip that initiated this chain of unconstitutional events was old news by the time it was forwarded to DPS (Denver Public Schools) officials and, because of its origin, could not be corroborated.

A school security officer employed by Denver Public Schools (DPS) received a report that C.C-S., a student at a DPS high school, had been seen in a Snapchat video shooting a firearm out of a car window.

[…]

By the time the Snapchat video showing C.C-S. was reported to Safe2Tell on February 25, 2018, it was about one month old. At that point, no one was able to review the footage because videos posted on Snapchat automatically disappear from the platform after twenty-four hours, unless they are saved.

Nevertheless, school officials decided to act, relying on little more than this and another unsubstantiated (and unrelated) allegation.

Although unable to review the Snapchat video, the dean of C.C-S.’s school told the school security officer that C.C-S. had a history of “bringing things to school that he shouldn’t, such as drugs and things like that.”

“Drugs and things.” Leaves a lot open to the imagination, which is what was exercised by school security officers, who took two uncorroborated reports and combined them into a search unsupported by probable cause.

At that point, the school security officer decided to search C.C-S., based on the Safe2Tell firearm tip, the dean’s comment, and the security officer’s policy of searching every student and their backpack when he received a Safe2Tell report that the student had either drugs or weapons. Once C.C-S. arrived at school, he was taken to an office for questioning by the school security officer, as well as a campus security officer, who was also employed by DPS but was stationed at C.C-S.’s school. With the door closed, the DPS officers told C.C-S. about the information they had received from the Safe2Tell tip and told him they were going to search his backpack.

C.C-S. refused to consent to a search and, after further discussion, attempted to leave the office. The DPS officers would not allow him to leave, instead reiterating that they were going to search his backpack. After the campus security officer asked C.C-S. whether he was refusing to allow the search because he had drugs in his backpack, C.C-S. confessed that he had drugs in his backpack and handed it over to the officers to be searched.

That’s not consent. That’s the implication that a search is going to take place, with or without cooperation. Keeping someone in a room and refusing to let them leave pretty much takes consent out of the equation. That only makes things worse for the school officers and the case they thought they had built against C.C-S.

Rights are rights, and while they are limited on school campuses, they are not nonexistent. The officers needed at least reasonable suspicion to approach and search C.C-S. and they didn’t even have that.

[W]e conclude that the Safe2Tell tip was insufficient to provide reasonable suspicion. We reach this conclusion for four reasons. First, as noted above, the tip was anonymous. Second, the information provided in the tip was stale. Third, because it was anonymous and stale, the limited information in the Safe2Tell tip did not provide reasonable suspicion that C.C-S. had committed or was about to commit a crime. And, fourth, the information about C.C-S.’s past behavior at school did not corroborate the Safe2Tell weapons tip.

Information about someone seen on SnapChat a month ago isn’t a good tip, or an actionable tip, or even a somewhat fresh tip. It may prompt some additional “keeping an eye on” by administrators but it cannot justify a seizure and a search, even on school grounds, and even with the district’s apparently unconstitutional policy of searching every student that has been reported via a Safe2Tell tip.

The school dean’s “tip” was no better and created no additional reasonable suspicion. The tip mentioned drugs, not weapons, and there was no information given that implied or stated the student had brought weapons onto campus before.

The state argued that this was asking too much from the Safe2Tell program, which guarantees students’ anonymity. Au contraire, says the court. This program may be useful and aid in public safety efforts, but it cannot summarily revoke students’ rights for these reasons or by its mere existence.

While we recognize the importance of Safe2Tell’s role in preventing school violence, investigations based on Safe2Tell tips by DPS security officers and other school officials must occur within the bounds of students’ Fourth Amendment rights.

As for the supposed “consent” to a search, the court says there was no consent.

[W]e conclude that the uncorroborated Safe2Tell tip did not justify detaining C.C-S. Because he was unreasonably detained, we may not rely on his admissions made during that unlawful detention to uphold the search of his backpack.

The state also argued that the exclusionary rule does not apply to juvenile cases or school security officers. Wrong again, says the court. The rule applies to government employees and their actions, which encompasses school administrators and school security officers.

We conclude that applying the exclusionary rule in school searches conducted by DPS security officers would deter Fourth Amendment violations. Those security officers perform quasi-law enforcement functions, inasmuch as the evidence they collect is often used in juvenile delinquency adjudications such as this one.

[…]

To apply the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule to school searches is therefore a logical extension of Supreme Court precedent. Its application here is especially appropriate since school security officers, whether acting in concert with the police or not, are governmental actors.

There goes the evidence obtained during the illegal search… which would be all of the evidence. Without it, all the government has is C.C-S., who may or may not have been the person seen by some student in some Snapchat video officers never viewed and which had vanished from the service long before the tip was sent in. The state has nothing to prosecute with. But maybe it has at least learned it can’t treat students like detainees following extraordinary rendition. Students have rights and the government — at least in this case — gains nothing by ignoring them.

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Comments on “Students Have Rights: Court Dumps Evidence After Cops Rely On A Month-Old Anonymous Tip To Search A Minor”

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19 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

" But maybe it has at least learned it can’t treat students like detainees following extraordinary rendition. Students have rights and the government — at least in this case — gains nothing by ignoring them. "

NO. Odds are, it has learned nothing… because, unless the victim has a lawyer, the abuses will continue and the school will get away with it next time, and the time after that.

Only way they would stop is if there were actual consequences beyond merely having the case tossed – such as the school administrator being tossed in the big house for forcible confinement. Otherwise, there are no real consequences and no real incentive not to continue with rights violations with impunity.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Just think, if they had done furter follow-up, and had enough immediate reasonable suspicion, or enough to get a warrant, they probably could have written him a ticket for the weed, and then charge-stacked him with assumed dealing to minors in a school zone.

That’ll stop violence in schools for sure.

Anonymous Coward says:

What happened to my country?

The US is an enormous country. One state’s normal is another state’s worst fears come true, I guess.

I went to high school in the 90s in the rural midwest. Guns were out in the open on school grounds every single day. Now true, they weren’t inside the school building, they were just on gun racks in vehicles. Student or teacher, doesn’t matter. If you could get your hands on a rifle, you’d display it in your window in the school parking lot.

I do understand though that in other parts of the US, this would result in someone calling for the SWAT team.

The number of school shootings? Zero.

Bergman (profile) says:

This sort of thing is why I’ve been saying for years that people – especially the victim – should be making arrests when public officials violate rights.

They don’t care if they lose a case on a ‘technicality’, they just blame the victim for ‘cheating’ the system. They don’t care if they get sued because win or lose they don’t lose a penny from being sued – if they’re sued for on-duty actions, they’re even PAID by the hour to appear in court. They don’t care if people protest, they just get sympathy from their fellow corrupt officials about how ungrateful and criminal the general public is.

But if you arrest them, it accomplishes several things they can’t just ignore:

First, one of the few bright, hard lines that all courts have drawn is that NO ONE is allowed to decide their own case, including resisting arrest because they just don’t feel like being arrested.

Second, it creates a permanent record of what they were arrested for, that ca be expunged from public records but NOT from the police and courts can see, on both employment background checks and lawsuit discovery.

Third, it uses what is sometimes called the prison-industrial complex against them, because prison operators don’t care who is sitting in an otherwise-vacant cell.

Any two public officials conspiring to use their official authority to violate any civil, statutory or constitutional right have committed a federal felony (18 USC 241) even if they only planned to do it but never actually did it.

According to the US Supreme Court, a citizen’s arrest for a federal felony is lawful anywhere any time and for any reason a citizen’s arrest for a state-law felony would be – and only North Carolina forbids a citizen’s arrest for felonies. This means that on all federal lands and in the other 49 states, a federal citizen’s arrest is lawful.

Nothing prevents someone who is already under arrest from making lawfully-binding arrests. In most cases, a citizen’s arrest is just as binding as one by police, including all possible official and unofficial consequences for resisting it. And you can make a 100% legally binding arrest with words alone, without so much as laying a finger on the person you are arresting – the police would have you believe an arrest only happens when you are body slammed, cuffed & stuffed, but the courts disagree.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"This sort of thing is why I’ve been saying for years that people – especially the victim – should be making arrests when public officials violate rights."

Although I do applaud the sentiment the reality of it is that attempting to make a citizen’s arrest on a US lawman is likely to end with you dead.

This game is rigged, from the start, to favor the police. Unless there’s a DA and judge who for some reason aren’t fully on the side of the cops this will not end well. Today less so than ever.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

This. Even if an arrest record is expunged from public records, the courts and police still have access to it and it will show up on both police background checks and lawsuit discovery.

If the Chief of Police of a given town or county values the service oath – or is simply averse to 42 USC 1983 lawsuits – they won’t be hiring a cop with rights violation arrests on record. Someone suing a cop for a rights violation discovering that officer has prior arrests for such violations – possibly many of them – will have a very easy time proving a pattern of behavior not just for the officer, but the department if he’s still a cop there.

And you can make an arrest with words alone – while the cops would love to have people believe a complimentary body slam or choke hold or tasing is an essential part of the arrest process, it’s just not true. "I am arresting you for the federal felony rights violation I just witnessed you commit" is at least as binding in most places in the USA as a cop body slamming you, choking you out, tasing your unconscious body and handcuffing you while you’re KOed, only to charge you with resisting arrest even though you were asleep when he laid hands on you.

Ben (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Most adults wouldn’t have the presence of mind to try this, and you expect a high school student to be able to turn the tables on two armed police officers (sorry, "security" officers) when they’ve already spent more than a decade of their young life being brainwashed to see such individuals as entirely dominant in a school situation?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
NoahVail (profile) says:

In My Day No Warrant Was Necessary

Because in my day the search would have been done by a principal who would have found my pot and suspended me.

What wouldn’t have happened is bringing cops to the school, arresting me and inflicting permanent damage to my entire life via a minor arrest record – partially because cops weren’t omnipresent in schools. Also not of happened was having that arrest persistently ruin future employment and housing opportunities because most businesses didn’t compulsively look for irrelevant reasons to deny employment and housing.

This last is a note for anyone thinking that today’s minor arrest doesn’t carry 100x the penalty that it did – in my day.

This comment has been deemed funny by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

the security officer’s policy of searching every student and their backpack when he received a Safe2Tell report that the student had either drugs or weapons

The first thing I thought of was an automated system to call in tips for every single student in the school. That should combine well with this policy.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re: call in tips for every single student

More people are killed every year using hands and feet than are killed with assault weapons. People get stabbed with pencils and pens all the time – to say nothing of how nasty getting stabbed with scissors is. In many places, possession of tobacco on school grounds is a misdemeanor, and few of them place an age limit on the matter.

There are LOTS of drugs and weapons in schools, in the possession of teachers, administrators and students. If making finger guns can get you expelled for bringing a weapon to school, then possession of pens and pencils is FAR more serious an offense!

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