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Searches on School Property in Ohio: Lockers, Cars, and Backpacks

Searches on School Property
November 11, 2019 | Written by Dan Margolis

Students and their property can typically be searched with less justification on school grounds than in the street or in their homes. Generally, a school administrator needs consent, but a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing is usually enough to search a student, their backpack, or their car. On the other hand, lockers can be searched if there is reasonable suspicion it contains evidence of a crime or school rule as well as randomly without reasonable suspicion if notice of the school’s policy is prominently displayed.

If your son or daughter has been charged with a crime or facing school discipline after a school search, call the Law Offices of Daniel M. Margolis today at (216) 533-9533 for a free case evaluation with an education law and student defense attorney.

Searches on School Property Require Less Justification

Until 1985, school officials were viewed as extensions of children’s parental authority, so they did not have to respect students’ constitutional rights. Just as a parent can search their child, school employees could search students and their lockers. But the case of New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) changed the legal landscape, and extended the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures to children in school. However, what constitutes a reasonable search of a student in school is different from what constitutes a reasonable search in public.

Reasonable Suspicion Is Determined Case-By-Case

To understand the reasonable suspicion standard, it’s helpful to look at some examples. In State v. Polk (2017), the Ohio Supreme Court unanimously ruled that school officials were justified in searching an unattended bag left on a bus. When bullets were found in the bag, the school was justified in conducting two more searches against the suspected owner of the bag. The court found that school officials were acting on a “compelling governmental interest” in protecting the safety of the school and its students.

In New Jersey v. T.L.O., a report of a student smoking in the bathroom was enough to justify a search of a student’s purse. In State of New Hampshire v. Drake (1995), an anonymous tip that a certain student would bring drugs to school, along with that student’s reputation as a drug dealer, created a reasonable suspicion justifying a search of the student’s bag. In the 1997 case of Bridgman v. New Trier High School District No. 203, a student’s bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils, and distracted manner justified a search.

On the other hand, two students huddled together, one with a hand in their pocket and the other with money in the hand was not enough to create reasonable suspicion in the case of A.S. v. State of Florida (1997). In Burnham v. West (1987), the odor of marijuana wafting through the halls did not justify the search all of the student’s pockets, bags, and purses.

Police May or May Not Be Treated as School Officials

It’s increasingly common to see police in schools. Whether permanently stationed on school grounds, or acting on behalf of school administrators, courts have been willing to treat police officers as school officials in some cases. This would mean that the police need only justify their search with reasonable suspicion, instead of the more demanding standard of probable cause. Other courts, however, have required that sworn peace officers must act on probable cause when conducting searches in schools–even when they’re acting on behalf of the school.

Call The Law Offices of Daniel M. Margolis

Essentially, this means that the lawfulness of a search depends largely on the circumstances, and how well a lawyer can articulate the facts. There is a lot of room for advocacy, and that can make a big difference in the outcome. This is why you should contact a lawyer as soon as possible if your child is facing charges or disciplinary action after a search on school property.

For a free and confidential consultation, call the Law Offices of Daniel M. Margolis today at (216) 533-9533.

Attorney Margolis is not currently providing free consultations nor accepting new clients. Please be advised that contact form submissions and calls may not be returned.
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