Monday, August 10, 2020
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Court OK’s breathalyzer tests before Fla. prom

A federal district court in Florida ruled that school officials and police didn’t violate any Constitutional rights by giving students breathalyzer tests before letting them into the prom.

In the case of Ziegler v. Martin Cnty. Sch. Dist., No. 14-14221 (S.D. Fla. Mar. 2, 2015), the court ruled that students’ rights under the 14th, Fourth, and First amendments were upheld. Let’s take a look at all that happened.

On May 3, 2014, approximately 37 students arrived in a chartered coach bus at the prom for Jensen Beach High School in the Martin County School District, based in Florida. Upon buying their tickets for the prom, students had to sign a zero-tolerance acknowledgment written or endorsed by the Martin County school board, which says:

Jensen Beach High School, along with Martin County School District, has a ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY for alcohol, drugs, or tobacco. Any form of tobacco, alcoholic beverages, or drugs is not permitted on property owned or controlled by the Martin County School District or at any school-sponsored activity, including activities conducted outside of Martin County. Students and guests attending such activities and events may be subject to a breath test. Any form of profanity is strictly prohibited. School policies are enforced.

Please be advised that failure to uphold these rules will result in immediate disciplinary action and possible recommendation for expulsion.

Voxitatis reported on this case a year ago, when it first occurred, saying that students who arrived at the prom in a “party bus” ended up missing the prom because by the time school officials got around to giving them the breathalyzer tests, the prom was over. The students, who then missed the prom, sued the school district, charging school officials with violating:

  • Their equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment by giving breathalyzer tests only to students who arrived at the prom in party buses or limos
  • Their right to be free of unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment in that the breathalyzer test was not only unconstitutional in its inception but unconstitutional as applied to the students
  • Their right to be free of unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment because they were detained excessively while waiting for the breathalyzer tests
  • The free speech rights of two students under the First Amendment by suspending them for three days for using profanity while they waited for the breathalyzer test

Students also accused the district of a “failure to train,” which means school officials or police should have received better training in how to administer breathalyzer tests in a way that didn’t violate their civil rights.

14th Amendment and equal protection

The breathalyzer tests were ordered after school officials and police found an empty champagne bottle in the bus. The students in this case claimed that school officials singled them out because they arrived at the prom in a chartered coach bus. Students also claimed limos were being searched but not students’ private vehicles.

Because school officials were more likely to target these 37 students and their chartered bus, the students claimed the search violated their 14th-Amendment rights of equal protection.

They were wrong, though, and the district court rejected their equal protection claim.

Students had “failed to articulate a facial challenge to the policy,” the court wrote. “To the extent [the student] claim that on the night of the Prom the policy was applied in a discriminatory matter, [the students] fail to provide any evidence to demonstrate that [the school district or police] instituted a policy, formally or informally, that only buses or limos arriving at prom were searched for evidence of alcohol and/or students arriving on buses or limos were given breath tests.”

The district court didn’t say no such policy direction existed, just that the students had failed to prove such a policy was in effect. That means, in terms of what can be proven in court, the school applied the search policy without discrimination as to the type of vehicle students arrived in.

Fourth Amendment and unreasonable searches

The Fourth Amendment guarantees our right to be free from unreasonable searches. The question here is: Was the search of the bus, during which school officials found an empty champagne bottle, allegedly belonging to the students, unreasonable?

The court said it was not. The students’ argument hinged on their claim that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy for their activity in the cabin of the bus. But they didn’t. Here’s why:

  • The students’ claim of an expectation of privacy is immaterial in the first place, the court said. “Even assuming [the students] had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the cabin of the bus at the time of the search, the bus driver validly consented to the search.”
  • The fact that the bus driver, a third party, gave consent to the search didn’t make the students’ claim to an expectation of privacy any more valid, the court ruled. At all times, the driver had “joint access” and “immediate control over the vehicle,” making his consent to search the bus legally binding.
  • US Supreme Court precedent holds, the court said, that “a third party’s consent is valid if he has mutual use of the property, with joint access to, or control of, the area for most purposes.” In this case, the driver was within his rights to consent to the search.

Students raised no objections to the bus driver’s verbal consent to the search when it happened, so the court ultimately concluded that the search of the bus was legal.

Next, the court considered the rights of students during the breathalyzer tests. The search took place in a school setting, which brings the Supreme Court case of New Jersey v T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985) into the argument.

Under the standards established in TLO, the search was justified at its inception if school officials had reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search would turn up evidence of a violation of the law or of school rules. The court found school officials did have reasonable suspicion for believing students had consumed alcohol, given the empty champagne bottle, which the bus driver had said belonged to the students.

TLO also makes it necessary to show that the search isn’t excessively intrusive, given the age and sex of the student being searched. The court said it wasn’t excessively intrusive, “because the test merely required [the students] to exhale.”

Having passed both tests from TLO, the breathalyzer tests were found not to have violated students’ rights to be free from unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment.

Fourth Amendment and unreasonable seizure

In addition, the court held that detaining students in order to wait for a school official who was certified to administer a breathalyzer test didn’t violate their Fourth Amendment seizure rights.

The argument focused here on the time students arrived at the prom: 10:15 PM, at the earliest. The tickets stated that the doors would close at 10:00, and students were late.

The assistant principal, who was the only school official certified to administer breathalyzer tests, had already gone home for the evening and had to be called back to administer the test to the late-arriving students.

“l find that [the school district’s] decision to detain [the students] until all of the breath tests were administered was reasonable under the circumstances,” the judge wrote.

First Amendment, profanity, and school punishments

As for the two students who used profanity in talking about their long wait, the fact that they were suspended for this outburst didn’t violate their free speech rights under the First Amendment, the court ruled.

The fact that the speech occurred off campus, which formed the basis of the students’ claim, didn’t matter to the court, because Supreme Court precedent makes clear “that school officials have the authority to regulate student speech at an off-campus, school sponsored event” (see Morse v Frederick, 551 U.S. 393, 410 (2007)).

Failure to train

Because there were no violations of students’ Constitutional rights in this case, the district court dismissed the “failure to train” charge as immaterial.

The court would have considered the claim if students had shown that the training of school officials or police was inadequate in protecting their civil rights. Since their civil rights didn’t need any more protection than what they got in this case, the failure to train claim has no merit.

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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