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Debate regarding lawfulness of searches.

Unfortunately, an alternate perspective with limited context is circulating on social media. For whatever reason, the opinions are not being expressed in the comments of the Comply due to safety Blog Post. I took an opportunity to pull off the source material of the commenters sharing with broader context. Allow me to post directly from their page.

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right of everyone “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” This means that if the government (and government institutions like public schools) wants to search your belongings, or take them away from you, they must have a good reason to do so and they must follow the proper procedure.

As with other Constitutional rights, NYRA believes this right applies to everyone equally regardless of age. However, many court cases have allowed schools to conduct searches that would be illegal if students were not involved. And because there is very little protection of students’ rights, school authorities have conducted egregious violations of the privacy, dignity and rights of young people, such as searching an entire class when an item goes missing, conducting a strip-search for insignificant amounts of money, threatening students with suspension if they didn’t turn over the passwords to their phones, and groping students. We believe that all students retain their Fourth Amendment rights in and out of school.

Like searches, the seizure, or confiscation, of personal property is limited by the Fourth Amendment. Despite this, nearly every school has a policy of taking certain items belonging to students. Most commonly, this includes cell phones, but school have confiscated anything from stuffed animals to permanent markers. Unfortunately, this practice is rarely challenged even though taking someone’s property without their permission or without reasonable cause violates their property rights. In some cases, schools will even charge a fee for returning the item, and collect thousands of dollars each year. Schools may also not return items to the student at all, yet students do not have any legal recourse if the school loses students’ property after it is confiscated. Unless students are breaking the law or infringing on another’s right to education, students should be allowed to retain all personal items.

Are School Searches Legal?

When courts try to determine whether a school search violates the Fourth Amendment they consider a variety of factors:

  1. The evidence for the search: In most cases, the school must be able to state specifically what they are looking for and have a good reason for believing they will find it in the place they are looking. Unfortunately, what determines a “good” reason is not always clear.
  2. The item being looked for: In general, the more dangerous an item is, the more invasive courts will allow a search to be.
  3. What is being searched: Depending on whether the school is searching your locker, your backpack, or under your clothes, it needs to comply with different requirements.
  4. The person doing the search: Different rules apply to the search depending on whether it is conducted by a teacher or principal, a school resource officer, or a police officer.


Courts have determined the legality of searches using three different criteria:

Probable cause: This is the highest standard required for a search and requires the police to have sufficient evidence that you committed a crime and that there is a substantial chance that they will find evidence of that crime by searching you or your belongings. However, school officials do not need probable cause in order to search you or your belongings at school. In fact, even police officers are rarely required to have probable cause if they are working on behalf of the school. They can use the much weaker standard of reasonable suspicion.

Reasonable suspicion: This is the usual standard used for any kind of search conducted against students at school. Reasonable suspicion does not require a search warrant and only requires that a police officer show that it was reasonable to believe that a search could turn up evidence of a crime, based on facts. Normally, this standard can only be used in a few circumstances, such as during arrest or if you are being frisked for weapons.

Suspicionless or random searches: In a few situations, neither reasonable suspicion nor probable cause is required for a search. Outside of schools, the courts have only allowed random searches in specific circumstances such as at airports and international borders, in circumstances where there are elevated risks or national security interests at stake. However, the US Supreme Court has ruled that many types of random searches are constitutional when performed against students on school campuses, even though there are no elevated risks or national security interests at stake.

The context school officials and officers frequently verbalize to citizens is to state that they have reasonable suspicion. The law states that law enforcement may detain (no use of handcuffs that would be an arrest) for a limited duration (SCOTUS states 25 minutes) to conduct an “investigation” to obtain articulable facts, and evidence that meets the Probable Cause standard. Citizens are unaware that Reasonable Suspicion alone is not a misdemeanor, a felony nor an offense to arrest a citizen. It limits the power (of public servants and private citizens) to only detention.

Unfortunately, public servants through their tactics and training have been known to demonstrate threats of arrest, intimidation, coercion and duress under color of law. During an “investigative detention” a reasonable public servant, or law enforcement officer would begin collecting affidavits, and question individuals to determine if they could identify the elements which have evidence that support probable cause. Law enforcement and public servants are expecting that citizens will be obedient to their authority, without regard to the lawfulness or limits to their authority. As the source states, the violations are often not challenged. Why? Well, that is part of the volume of education provided by Cultural Contrarian.

Let’s review some more details:

Personal belongings

School officials only need reasonable suspicion that there is a crime before searching a student’s belongings. In the landmark case of New Jersey v. T.L.O. (US Supreme Court, 1985), the Court ruled that school administrators do not need to have a search warrant or probable cause before conducting a search because students have a reduced expectation of privacy when in school.

Nevertheless, there are limitations on schools searching students’ belongings. For example, in the case of Burnham v. West (Eastern District Court of Virginia, 1987), the court concluded that the odor of marijuana in the hall does not provide sufficient reason to search all students’ book bags, purses, and pockets. It should be noted, however, if an object or item is in plain view, a teacher can take it or search it without reasonable suspicion. Because of this, some schools have required students to only use clear backpacks so that their possessions can be seen.

These standards also apply to parked cars on campus, as in State v. Slattery (Court of Appeals of Washington, 1980).

Video recording

Schools have also severely violated students’ right to privacy by video recording students without their knowledge while changing in a locker room. Because students have a reasonable expectation of privacy in changing rooms, such searches are considered illegal, such as in Brannum v. Overton County School Board (Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, 2008).

Students using their phones on public property, videography is entirely permissible based upon the same laws which the school uses to record children. This is why, none of us have an expectation of privacy when in PUBLIC, ie PUBLIC SCHOOLS. However, the same restrictions apply to areas that are secure, blocked or an expectation of privacy does exist (bathroom, locker room, inside a tent or camper at a campground, etc.)

Cellphone searches

In recent years, NYRA and other civil rights groups have fought for student rights by challenging cell phone searches that were not justified, as in the case of Boca Raton Community High School. For many years the high school had a policy of searching through the text messages, photos, emails, and voicemails of student cell phones that were confiscated during class. Thanks to the efforts of NYRA’s Southeast Florida chapter, the school changed its cell phone policy; cell phone searches can now be conducted only when there is reasonable suspicion.

Never surrender your cellphone absent of a warrant!!!!

Social media accounts

Schools often try to force students to give school administrators the passwords to their social media accounts. One student successfully sued her school after she was forced to log in to her Facebook account in the principal’s office. In that case, S.S. v. Minnewaska Area School District (District Court of Minnesota, 2012), the school had to pay damages and revise its social media privacy policy.

Just because someone alleges they heard or saw something is not enough. The allegations must be affirmed/attested to under grounds of perjury in a sworn affidavit. If not, no record, it never happened and falls under Hearsay.

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