Classrooms’ Contraband Searches Violate Rights, Appeals Court Says

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An Arkansas school district’s practice of searching the pockets, purses, and backpacks of randomly selected classrooms of students for drugs and other contraband violates students’ right to privacy, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, ruled that the Little Rock district’s practice of requiring entire classrooms to submit to the searches violated the Fourth Amendment right of its 7th graders to be free from unreasonable searches.

The practice was challenged in a lawsuit brought on behalf of a student identified in court papers as Jane Doe, who during the 1999-2000 school year, along with her classmates, was ordered to leave the classroom after emptying their pockets and placing their belongings, including backpacks and purses, on their desks.

While the students waited in the hallway, school personnel searched their belongings, including Jane Doe’s purse, in which they discovered a container of marijuana. School officials turned the drug over to police, and the girl was convicted of a misdemeanor. The school wasn’t identified in court papers.

A federal district judge in Little Rock ruled the search constitutional last year, but the 8th Circuit court panel reversed the decision Aug. 18, with one judge partially dissenting.

"Students often carry items of a personal or private nature in their pockets and bags, and many students (whether or not they are carrying contraband) must surely feel uncomfortable or embarrassed when officials decide to rifle through their personal belongings," U.S. Circuit Judge Morris Sheppard Arnold wrote in the majority opinion.

The 25,000-student district failed to present evidence of an urgent problem with weapons or drugs in its schools, or cause to believe that the students who were to be searched were carrying such contraband, the opinion said.

The opinion noted that the students were legally compelled to attend school and had not accepted a lowered standard of privacy—for example, as a condition of participation in interscholastic sports or academic teams.

Search Methods Differ

Other school search techniques generally upheld by the courts, such as metal detectors and drug-sniffing dogs, are not as intrusive as "people rummaging through personal belongings concealed within a container," Judge Arnold wrote.

U.S. Circuit Judge C. Arlen Beam said he agreed that the search of Jane Doe violated her rights, but that he did not agree with the majority that the district’s search policy should be broadly struck down. He said the suspicionless searches might pass muster if the district did not turn violators over to the police.

The 8th Circuit covers Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

The Little Rock district no longer conducts searches in the manner described in the lawsuit, according to Suellen Vann, its director of communications.

"We don’t go into containers and bags," Ms. Vann said last week.

She said no decision had been made about whether the district would appeal.

Vol. 24, Issue 1, Page 14

Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as Classrooms’ Contraband Searches Violate Rights, Appeals Court Says
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