Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Court Limits Schools' Search of Students

By Amy Miller, Journal Staff Writer

Students can't be searched just because a school official has a hunch they have done something illegal, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.
The ruling upheld a district court decision that two Rio Grande High School campus security aides didn't have reasonable suspicion to search a student who was "acting a little nervous" when approached.
The student, identified only as Pablo R., was found in possession of a weapon and drug paraphernalia. The ruling grants the student's request to suppress evidence in his juvenile case.
Assistant Attorney General Arthur Pepin said his office was disappointed.
"We feel the safety concerns the school expressed are legitimate, and it (the ruling) makes it more difficult for the school to provide a safe learning environment," Pepin said.
The decision was filed in April, and the state Supreme Court declined to review it in June.
Assistant Appellate Defender Nancy Hewitt said the court case should not change how schools operate.
The U.S. Supreme Court has established that school officials must have a good reason to suspect that students have violated the law or a school rule before searching them.
That has been Albuquerque Public Schools' policy for several years, APS spokesman Rigo Chavez said.
However, he said APS police officers and campus security aides will be briefed on the decision and others that define reasonable suspicion during annual training sessions.
Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the decision does "clarify the rights that students have against unwarranted, unjustifiable searches of their person by school administrators."
"We have such a problem in our public schools with misunderstandings about where students' constitutional rights begin and end," he said.

Reasonable suspicion
The court said school officials don't need a search warrant or even probable cause to search a student's belongings.
But students have a constitutional right to privacy, so "the search of a student must still be reasonable under the circumstances in order to withstand constitutional scrutiny," wrote state Appeals Court Judge Michael Vigil. Judges Cynthia Fry and Ira Robinson concurred.
The court said school officials must have reasonable suspicion based on specific facts, and there must be a connection between what they searched for and what they found.
What reasonable suspicion actually means on school grounds to school officials has been a gray area, legal experts agreed.
"Reasonable suspicion is a standard that inevitably will vary from case to case, depending on the circumstances school officials find themselves in at the time," said Chief Public Defender John Bigelow.
In this case, the student was walking down a Rio Grande High hallway on Dec. 15, 2003, without a pass. He said he had been late to class and been instructed by his teacher to go to the office for a late pass.
A campus security aide stopped him and thought "something was wrong" because he seemed nervous and fidgety.
The student was directed to the security office, where two aides frisked him and searched his jacket. They found a pipe containing what appeared to be marijuana residue and a pair of brass knuckles.
The campus security aide admitted that when he stopped the student, he did not suspect any criminal activity or smell marijuana. He became concerned the student "might have a weapon or anything else like marijuana," because the student appeared nervous.
The Appeals Court said that didn't meet the test to allow a search.
"This was nothing more than a hunch and insufficient as a matter of law to provide reasonable suspicion to conduct the search," Vigil wrote. "Reasonable suspicion must exist at the inception of the search; the State cannot rely on facts which arise as a result of the search, such as the discovery of the weapon and drug paraphernalia on Child."

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