Search of Different Student’s Locker Did Not Violate the Fourth Amendment

In In re J.D. (2014) 225 Cal.App.4th 709 [170 Cal.Rptr.3d 464], the Court of Appeal held that a school’s search of lockers in an area frequented by a student suspected of an off-campus shooting was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

While on duty at the school, a Richmond High School campus security officer (CSO) was informed by a student that the day before, while she was on a public bus, she witnessed another Richmond High School student, T.H., pull out a gun and shoot someone. Another student had also told the student witness what T.H. had done with the weapon. The CSO met with school administrators and was directed to detain T.H. and determine if he had any weapons. The CSO also called the Richmond police for help.

Another Richmond High School CSO had frequently observed T.H. hanging around a locker different from the one he was assigned. In fact, on the day of the shooting, the CSO had observed T.H. with his girlfriend in front of locker 2499. The CSO had also advised school authorities that students often shared their assigned locker with other students who were not assigned to that locker for the purpose of concealing contraband such as drugs and other items not permitted on campus. A search of locker 2499 revealed only a couple of books. The CSO was then directed to check the lockers adjacent to locker 2499 because the student had frequented the “area” of 2499. When locker 2501, which was next to 2499, was opened, a backpack containing a sawed-off shotgun was found. In addition to the sawed-off shotgun, the backpack contained school assignment papers belonging to another student, J.D. A Richmond police officer met with J.D., Mirandized him, and thereafter J.D. admitted that the shotgun in the backpack belonged to him. J.D. stated that he was bothered by other students at the school and possessed the weapon for his safety.

The California Court of Appeal upheld the search of the lockers, finding that the conduct of the school officials was reasonable under the circumstances. The court acknowledged that based on recent events, such as Columbine, Sandy Hook Elementary, and Virginia Tech, school officials now have increased concern in the daily operation of public schools. The court noted that government has a heightened obligation to safeguard students whom it compels to attend school. There is a special need for an immediate response to behavior that threatens either the safety of schoolchildren and teachers or the educational process itself. This, the court found, justifies excepting school searches from the warrant and probable-cause requirement, and applying a standard determined by balancing the relevant interests. Thus, the state has a compelling interest in assuring that the schools meet this responsibility.

Accordingly, the validity of a search on school property should depend on the reasonableness of the official conduct to deal with the particular school problem. In this case, Richmond High School administrators and security staff were informed by an identified student that the weapon used the previous day to shoot a person on a public bus after school may be at the school, possibly in a student’s locker. This information triggered an inspection of the lockers where it was reasonable to believe that a weapon may be found. The administrator’s actions were narrowly focused, and based on the identity of T.H. and an area of the school he was known to frequent. The actions of school security, based on the belief that T.H. may have stored contraband in another person’s locker, were reasonable under these circumstances.

The appellate court found that determining the reasonableness of any search involves a twofold inquiry: first, whether the action of the school officials was justified at its inception, and second, whether the search as actually conducted was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances. Citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the court found that under ordinary circumstances, a search of a student by a teacher or other school official will be justified at its inception when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school. Such a search will be permissible in its scope when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and are not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.

The appellate court also concluded that the school’s reasonable response was not prolonged over time nor a widespread checking of all lockers at the high school. The locker (2501) that was adjacent to the first locker checked, was properly examined based on the observations of the CSOs, their experience with student concealment of items in other lockers, and the prompt need to address a serious shooting the previous day. The fact that J.D., rather than T.H., had stored an illegal weapon in locker 2501 did not disturb the legal validity of this search.