Court Rejects School Search of Student’s Cellphone

By Mark Walsh — March 28, 2013 3 min read
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In a novel decision, a federal appeals court has ruled that a Kentucky school administrator’s search of text messages on a student’s cellphone was unreasonable and violated the student’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled 2-1 on the legality of the cellphone search. It ruled unanimously that the student was denied due process when the district expelled him without a hearing for repeated disciplinary infractions.

The case involves a student identified in court papers as G.C., who was attending the Owensboro, Ky., school district as an out-of-district student from 2005 to 2009. He had numerous disciplinary incidents, and at one point he told administrators that he was using drugs and was disposed to anger and depression. After one March 2009 infraction, an assistant principal checked the student’s cell phone to see whether there was evidence he was contemplating suicide.

In September 2009, G.C. was seen texting on his cellphone in class, a violation of school rules. The teacher turned over the phone to another assistant principal, who read four of G.C.'s text messages on the phone. The assistant principal later testified that she knew of the student’s discipline issues and was looking “to see if there was an issue with which I could help him so that he would not do something harmful to himself or someone else.”

Meanwhile, the principal considered the cellphone use in school a last disciplinary straw and revoked G.C.'s privilege to attend school in Owensboro as an out-of-district student. G.C. and his parents sued the district and various officials, alleging an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment and a violation of due process of law under the 14th Amendment, among other claims.

They lost in a federal district court. But in a March 28 ruling in G.C. v. Owensboro Public Schools, the 6th Circuit court panel ruled for the student on the due process and Fourth Amendment claims.

The court was unanimous in holding that revocation of G.C.'s out-of-district privileges amounted to an expulsion under Kentucky school law. School officials could not unilaterally remove an out-of-district student in the middle of the school year without providing a due-process hearing, the court said.

On the cellphone search, the court said G.C. conceded that the earlier search of his phone, when an assistant principal checked for evidence that the student was contemplating suicide, was reasonable under the circumstances.

But the September 2009 search after G.C. was caught texting in class was not justified at its inception, the court said, relying on the test for school searches of students under the 1985 Supreme Court decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O.

In this novel area, the 6th Circuit court examined two federal district court rulings, one in which Mississippi school officials were upheld for a search of pictures on a student’s cellphone, the other in which a court ruled that administrators of a Pennsylvania district went too far by accessing a student’s text messages and voice mail, looking at his contact list, and calling other students and even the student’s brother, all apparently in fishing expedition for improper activity.

“A search is justified at its inception if there is reasonable suspicion that a search will uncover evidence of further wrongdoing or of injury to the student or another,” the 6th Circuit court said. “Not all infractions involving cellphones will present such indications. Moreover, even assuming that a search of the phone were justified, the scope of the search must be tailored to the nature of the infraction and must be related to the objectives of the search.”

“Under our two-part test, using a cellphone on school grounds does not automatically trigger an essentially unlimited right enabling a school official to search any content stored on the phone that is not related either substantively or temporally to the infraction,” the court added.

The court rejected arguments on behalf of the Owensboro administrators that G.C.'s past record of discipline issues and concerns over drugs and his mental state justified the search of his phone’s text messages. It noted that the student was merely caught texting in class when his phone was confiscated.

“We disagree ... that general background knowledge of drug abuse or depressive tendencies, without more, enables a school official to search a student’s cell phone when a search would otherwise be unwarranted,” the court said.

(Hat Tip to How Appealing.)

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.