Judge Rejects Administrators’ Search of Student’s Cellphone

By Mark Walsh — September 12, 2014 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A federal district judge has thrown out the search of a Virginia student’s cellphone by school administrators looking for evidence of illegal drugs. It was apparently the first time a cellphone search in schools has come under scrutiny since a June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court giving strong Fourth Amendment protection to the contents of cellphones.

At the same time, the judge upheld a pat-down search of the student and an examination of his pockets, shoes, and backpack. The case started with reports from two parents that they had witnessed “a long-haired student” smoking marijuana on the Henrico High School bus on a morning in February 2013.

No evidence of drugs turned up, and parents of the student identified as W.S.G. sued the Henrico County school district and two administrators alleging the searches violated the 4th Amendment.

In his Aug. 5 ruling in Gallimore v. Henrico County School Board, U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney Jr. of Richmond, Va., held that the search of W.S.G. and his possessions (other than the cellphone) by the associate principal and assistant principal was justified at its inception by the parental tip. W.S.G. “had something approaching long hair” at the time, the judge said. And that part of the search was reasonable in scope, the judge said.

But the search of W.S.G.'s cellphone, the judge said, “exceeded the scope of a reasonable search initiated to find drugs. “

Unlike some of W.S.G.'s other possessions, “the cellphone could not have contained drugs,” the judge said.

Although Gibney’s opinion did not mention the Supreme Court’s June 25 decision in Riley v. California, the judge had asked the parties to brief him on the potential impact of that decision on the Henrico County case.

In Riley, the justices unanimously held that the police generally may not search without a warrant the contents of a cellphone of someone who has been arrested.

In a brief, lawyers for the school administrators told Gibney that the context of the Riley decision was different from the typical search in schools.

“This law-enforcement standard is inapplicable to the school search in this matter, which was not conducted by police, did not require a warrant, and did not occur incident to arrest,” a brief for the school administrators said. “The constitutionality of a school search, as articulated by the New Jersey v. T.L.O. line of cases, remains wholly unchanged by Riley.”

T.L.O. was a 1985 Supreme Court decision establishing that school officials could conduct warrantless searches of students under a standard of reasonable suspicion, not the higher standard of probable cause required for police searches.

(The administrators also deny that a search of W.S.G.'s cellphone was conducted at all, but in weighing their effort to have the student’s lawsuit dismissed at an early stage, the judge had to assume the student’s version of events was correct.)

Lawyers for W.S.G. told the judge in a brief that the Riley decision helped their case because it “reaffirms the importance of reasonableness” for searches by school officials.

Somewhat curiously, given the strong Fourth Amendment protection for the contents of cellphones suggested by the Supreme Court’s Riley decision, Gibney suggested the associate principal may have had “reasonable cause” to check the contents of W.S.G.'s cellphone.

“For instance, [the administrator] could have had reason to suspect that text messages or telephone calls stored in the phone would disclose a marijuana supplier or purchaser in the school,” the judge said. “On the record before the court, however, no such facts justify the search” of the cellphone.’'

It seems likely that there will be more cases testing the implications of Riley in the schools.

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