Thursday, July 9, 2020
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Search of backpack by school resource officer unconstitutional

The Washington (state) Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a school resource officer violated the constitutional rights of a student by searching that student’s backpack without a warrant, the Associated Press reports via the San Francisco Chronicle.

The 6-3 vote overturns an appellate court ruling in the case, which decided that a weapon found during the search could be used as evidence in a case against Jamar Meneese, who was originally detained for holding a bag of marijuana in his hand in a school bathroom. While waiting for a police patrol car to pick up Maneese, the officer who searched the backpack, Michael Fry, became suspicious that Meneese’s backpack contained “additional contraband because it had a padlock on the handles.”

He unsuccessfully tried to search the backpack without removing the padlock, but Meneese said he didn’t have a key. Fry then handcuffed him, searched his person, found the key, opened the backpack, and discovered an air pistol, also known as a BB gun.

Meneese was convicted of possession of marijuana and of unlawfully carrying a dangerous weapon on school grounds, but this ruling sends the case back to the trial court for additional proceedings.

Many educators expressed concern that the ruling would negatively affect school safety. The basis of the court’s ruling was that Fry was not acting as a school employee but as a police officer, and in that capacity, the search of a locked backpack required a warrant, the court ruled.

“The distinction between a school resource officer and a school staff member is not significant in the context of school safety,” one prosecuting attorney said in a statement. “Search warrants are not a practical option when a student is suspected of carrying a gun to school. Action has to be taken immediately for the safety of all.”

On a national scale, though, the ruling may not mean all that much. Only two states in the country—Washington and Georgia—put restrictions on a school resource officer’s ability to search students within a school setting, the AP quoted one resource officer as saying.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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