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.