A police search of an instructional aide’s school desk for evidence of inappropriate communications with an elementary student did not violate the Fourth Amendment, Maryland’s highest court has ruled.
The ruling came in the case of a special education “paraeducator” who was convicted of sexual abuse of a minor and attempted sexual abuse, based entirely on a series of passionate notes and letters the aide had delivered to an 8-year-old girl at the school.
The aide, Karl Marshall Walker Jr., was 38 years old at the time the case unfolded. After a teacher found one inappropriate note in the girl’s possession, the police searched Walker’s desk in a common area of the school. With the school principal’s consent, police searched the desk and removed a box belonging to Walker. They obtained a warrant for that box, which contained notes from the 8-year-old girl to Walker.
This discovery led the police, with the help of the girl’s mother, to find many of Walker’s notes to the girl.
One note was typical: “I love giving you things because it’s the only way I can show you how much I love you,” the aide wrote to the girl. “I also heard you have a boyfriend. That has me very depressed. Please don’t think of me as some creep or monster. I don’t want to lose your respect. I feel like Cullen in the Twilight stories and you are the girl. I have tried to make myself not like you, but too late. I have fallen for you hard.”
Walker was convicted in a bench trial before a state trial court judge, and he was sentenced to 13 years in prison with all but seven years suspended.
The judge cited the letters as well as evidence that the aide had engaged in hugging and hand-holding with the girl.
“Sexual acts are not only limited to physical acts,” the trial judge said. “Taking all of the evidence into consideration I find that the totality of the letters, the hugging, the holding hands, were all evidence that [the girl] was exploited and exploited within the meaning of the Child Sexual Abuse Statute.”
Walker’s appeal challenged the validity of the search of his desk under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and whether his non-sexually explicit notes and contact with the girl amounted to a crime under Maryland law.
In its unanimous July 8 decision in Walker v. Maryland, the state high court ruled against the aide on both questions.
Walker argued that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his school desk. But the state high court noted that the desk was in a common area with other instructional aides’ desks.
“The record is ... clear that the desk was unlocked, potentially accessible to others who might be in search of pencils or other supplies, and [Walker] did not seek to lock the desk or to place his valuables in an available private locker,” the court said.
“The open nature of the room; the high volume of traffic around it; the labels on the desk drawers; [Walker’s] failure to lock the desk when given the option to do so; and his failure to testify that he believed the desk was for his private use or offer any other evidence to that effect all support our conclusion” that Walker did not have an expectation of privacy, the court said.
As to the second question, the state high court discussed Maryland case law at length to support its conclusion that Walker’s non-sexual notes and actions nonetheless carried a sexual undertone and exploited the 8-year-old in violation of the state child sex abuse statute.
Walker’s “actions certainly fall within the rubric of sexual exploitation and we have evidence from which to conclude that he was sufficiently aware of the wrongful nature of his actions,” the court said. “He told [the girl] to destroy all of the notes he had given her, acknowledged it was wrong for him to love her, and expressed a fear that she would view him as ‘weird’ or a ‘perverted child psycho stalker.’”
“These are not the words of a man who believes his conduct is entirely innocent and devoid of criminal consequences,” the court concluded.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.