Court Declines To Hear Teacher's Appeal In Drug Case

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The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to hear the appeal of a high school teacher who was fired after a marijuana cigarette was found in her car and she refused to take a drug test.

Sherry Hearn was a teacher at Windsor Forest High School in the Savannah-Chatham County, S.C., district in 1996 when a police dog alerted officials to the remnants of a marijuana cigarette in her car ashtray. District officials were conducting a broad sweep for drugs at the school using trained dogs provided by the local police department.

Ms. Hearn was not charged criminally, but school officials demanded she take a urinalysis drug test. The teacher refused, and she was fired by the district for insubordination and "other good and sufficient cause.

"Ms. Hearn challenged the termination in federal court, arguing that she was under no obligation to take the drug test because the search of her car was illegal under the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures." She lost in both federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta.

An appeals court panel ruled 2-1 last year that reasonable suspicion of Ms. Hearn arose in the context of a legal drug sweep of the school parking lot by law-enforcement officials.

'Law-Enforcement Event'

The Supreme Court has upheld the use of trained dogs to sniff travelers' luggage for drugs; the 11th Circuit court, among others, has upheld the same tactic outside cars.

"This was a law-enforcement event, not bound by any school policy or employment contract," the appellate majority said.

The dissenting judge said that the drug sweep was under the direction of school officials, and that Ms. Hearn had a contractual right to be free from searches of her desk, personal items, and vehicle conducted without her consent. The judge noted that Ms. Hearn had been critical of the district's policy of conducting drug sweeps and thus "she was not in favor with the employer."

In her appeal to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Ms. Hearn said lower courts were divided about whether the use of drug-sniffing dogs in a public workplace or with parked cars constitutes a search under the 4th Amendment.

The justices on May 15 declined without comment to hear the appeal in Hearn v. Savannah and Chatham County Board of Public Education (Case No. 99-1477).

Vol. 19, Issue 37, Page 34

Published in Print: May 24, 2000, as Court Declines To Hear Teacher's Appeal In Drug Case
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