Sunday, September 20, 2020
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Cellphone search violated 4th Amendment rights


If looking for drugs, what
you can and can’t search.

A male long-haired student’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches were violated, a US District Court in Virginia has ruled, when school officials searched his cellphone after receiving a tip that a male student with long hair had been smoking marijuana on a school bus, according to the decision filed in the case of Gallimore v Henrico Cnty Sch Bd.

The court ruled that given a reasonable suspicion that the student, identified as “WSG,” had been smoking marijuana, school officials were justified in patting him down and searching his backpack, shoes, pockets, etc. (New Jersey v T.L.O., 1985). However, the court found that the search of his cellphone was not justified, given that officials were looking for evidence of drugs.

Select facts relevant to the decision

WSG was a student at Hermitage High School, where an associate and an assistant principal received a tip one day from a parent that a male long-haired student was smoking marijuana on one of the school buses.

The two principals escorted WSG to the office later that day without telling him why he was being detained. When he got to the office, he was told to empty his pockets, which he did, and submit to a pat-down search as well as a search of his backpack, shoes, a Vaseline jar in his possession, a sandwich wrapper, and a cellphone.

School officials found no marijuana and sent WSG back to class that day. He later filed suit in US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleging school officials had searched him unreasonably and violated his Fourth Amendment rights. He also charged school officials with assault and battery in connection with the search of his person.

In the New Jersey v T.L.O. case, the US Supreme Court established criteria for justifiable searches like this. The search must first be “justified at its inception” and second be “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.”

At its inception, the principals were justified in searching WSG because he reasonably fit the description of the long-haired student who was smoking marijuana on the school bus.

The principals’ “pat down of WSG and the search of his backpack, shoes, and pockets were all reasonable in scope because WSG could have hidden drugs in these places,” the court wrote.

Cellphone search not justified when looking for drugs

However, the court concluded that the search of the cellphone, based on the facts as pleaded by WSG, exceeded the scope of a reasonable search conducted to discover drugs. Unlike other items, such as a Vaseline jar or sandwich wrapper, the cellphone could not possibly have contained drugs, the court pointed out: “The search of the cell phone was, therefore, not ‘reasonably related’ to the objective of the search—finding evidence of drug use on the school bus earlier that day.”

The assault and battery charges were dismissed by the court, as Judge John A Gibney Jr ruled that the principal’s touching of WSG was legally justified because it was based on a moderate chance of finding illegal drugs. That is, it was permissive in scope and wasn’t excessively intrusive.

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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