Neb. Court Rejects Off-Campus Search of Student Vehicle

By Mark Walsh — May 18, 2013 3 min read
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A search by school officials of a student’s vehicle while it was parked just off campus was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, Nebraska’s highest court has ruled.

The search had turned up drug paraphernalia, leading to a 19-day suspension for a Millard West High School student identified in court papers as J.P.

The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled 5-1 that school officials exceeded their authority under state law when they concluded that a student driving to and from school without parking on school grounds gave them a sufficient nexus to school activities to subject the student to discipline based on that activity.

“We conclude that the school district did not have implied authority to search a student’s vehicle parked off campus,” the court majority said in J.P. v. Millard Public Schools.

The incident stems from a day in August 2010 when J.P. drove a truck to the high school and parked on an adjacent street. After one class, J.P. sought to exit the building to go to his truck, but a hall monitor refused him permission, court papers say. A short time later, J.P. snuck out to the vehicle anyway and retrieved his wallet and a sweatshirt.

A school security officer witnessed J.P.'s visit to his truck, and after some communication with others about whether the student had permission to leave the building, J.P. found himself in the office of Assistant Principal Harry Grimminger. The administrator required J.P. to empty his pockets, and that search turned up no contraband.

Grimminger said he wanted to search J.P.'s truck. The student refused consent, saying his dad would not want the truck searched. Nevertheless, the assistant principal and a school resource officer performed the search, and they turned up two drug pipes.

J.P. and his father challenged the student’s suspension on Fourth Amendment grounds. A hearing officer found that school jurisdiction extended to the adjacent street where J.P. had parked the truck, and the suspension was upheld.

The family sued, and a Nebraska trial court ruled that the search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment because school officials in this case had to meet the same standards for a warrantless search as the police, J.P. did not consent to the search of the truck, and the search of his pockets had not given the authorities probable cause to move on to the truck.

In its May 17 decision, the state high court affirmed the lower court. The court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O.—which said school officials need only meet a standard of reasonable suspicion to search students at school—had been applied many times by lower courts across the country to searches of student vehicles. But all of those cases involved vehicles parked on school property, the Nebraska high court said.

The court said it could not find a case that recognized “a right of school officials to conduct off-campus searches of a student’s person or property which are unrelated to school- sponsored activities.”

“On school grounds, school officials have authority to regulate and control student conduct,” Justice John F. Wright wrote for the majority. “But school officials are not given express or implied authority to search on a public street, at a student’s home, or on other premises off school grounds, including an off-school-grounds vehicle that is not associated with a school-sponsored event or activity.”

It upheld the lower court’s order that J.P.'s discipline be removed from his permanent record.

Writing in dissent, Chief Justice Michael G. Heavican said he believed school officials had several grounds to conduct the search of J.P.'s truck under the “reasonable suspicion” standard.

“Here, while on school property during regular school hours, J.P. lied to school officials on multiple occasions and J.P. exited the school without authorization and reentered the school on two separate occasions,” Heavican said. “The majority’s opinion allows students to violate important school rules without consequence. It permits students to hide from authority simply by parking their vehicles across the street.”

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