Washington School Searches Must Be Reasonable

Generally, unless there is an applicable exception, both the Washington and U.S. constitutions require a warrant supported by probable cause before someone acting on behalf of the government can conduct a search.  One exception to the warrant requirement applies to school officials.  Under the school search exception, a school official may conduct a reasonable search of a student.  This does not mean a school can search any student at any time for any reason—the search must be reasonable.  Washington criminal courts use the “McKinnon Factors” to determine if a school search was reasonable.

A defendant challenged her conviction on the grounds the search was unlawful.  According to the appeals court opinion, the school received information about a threat involving the juvenile defendant, who was not a student of that school.  Staff looked her up in the school district’s system so they could identify her.  When the vice principal saw her, he asked her to come into the office.

In the office, the principal asked the defendant why she was there.  After a few minutes, the principal determined she was uncooperative and told her they were calling the police.  The vice principal testified the defendant would have been allowed to leave if she had chosen to do so.  He also testified they did not have the authority to discipline her since she was not a student at their school.

The vice principal searched the defendant’s  backpack after smelling marijuana and found suspected marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

The defendant was charged with possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia.  She moved to suppress the evidence found in her backpack.  She argued the school search exception did not apply because she was not a student at that school.  She also argued the search was unreasonable.

The defendant was convicted of both charges in a bench trial and appealed.

For a school search to be reasonable, it must be “justified at its inception” and “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified” it.  A search is justified if there are reasonable grounds to suspect it will reveal evidence the student has violated or is violating a law or school rule.  To be reasonable in scope, the search must be conducted in a way that is related to the objectives of the search and cannot be excessively intrusive based on the student’s age and sex and the nature of the violation.

Washington courts apply the McKinnon factors to determine if there were reasonable grounds for a school search.  These factors include the child’s age, history, and school record, the prevalence and seriousness of the problem, the exigency to conduct the search immediately, and the reliability of the information that the justification of the search was based upon.

The defendant asked the court to find the school search exception does not apply to non-students.  The court chose not to make such a broad finding, and instead concluded the search was not reasonable under the McKinnon factors.

The appeals court found no evidence the vice principal knew anything about the defendant’s history or school record.  He had testified that he looked her up to find her photograph.  There was no evidence of a problem with drug use at the school.  In fact, the vice principal testified he did not believe the school had a drug problem and there were only “occasional incidents” of students bringing drugs or paraphernalia to school.  Furthermore, the police were on their way, so there was no exigency in the search.  Additionally, the defendant was aware the police had been called and had not indicated she was going to leave.  The appeals court concluded the search was not justified at its inception.

The appeals court noted the purpose behind the school search exception is to allow teachers and administrators to maintain discipline on campus, but in this case, the vice principal had no authority to discipline the defendant.  Furthermore, there was no need to act immediately because the defendant was sitting in the office waiting for the police.

The state argued exigency is present in a school search situation when there is “any threat to the order and discipline of the school.”  The circumstances underlying the case containing the quoted language, however, were very different from the circumstances here.  In the cited case, the school resource officer saw a weapon inside a vehicle in the school parking lot.  The trial court found there had been a “serious problem” of weapons in that school district and there was a risk because students would soon be going to the parking lot at lunch.  Here, the defendant and her backpack were in the principal’s office and therefore did not pose a significant threat to the discipline and order of the school.

The state also argued the search was justified because the defendant failed to report to the main office or tell the principal why she was at the school.  The state pointed out the defendant should have been at her own school during school hours. It further argued the search was needed to be sure marijuana was not involved in a potential conflict at the school.  The appeals court rejected these arguments, referencing back to the McKinnon factors.

Although at least one federal case extended the school search exception to a non-student, that court specifically noted that extending the exception to non-students “who present a credible threat of physical harm…” was appropriate. The vice principal never stated he thought there was a credible threat of physical harm.  This case did not involve a weapon and any threat posed was contained within the principal’s office.

The appeals court reversed the defendant’s conviction.

This case shows that even searches by school officials must be reasonable.  If your child is facing criminal charges, you need an experienced Washington juvenile criminal defense attorney to fight for your child’s rights.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to schedule a meeting to talk about your case.