Our criminal defense law firm represents persons charged with crimes and offenses in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have represented people from every walk of life and sometimes we’ve had to represent a student accused a crime which began after a search revealed contraband on school property.
Why is school different?
First, its important to recognize that the school environment requires order and discipline. This is the reason constitutional protections (4th amendment and the 14th Amendment) in a public school are different than those enjoyed when students aren’t on school grounds, at school functions (assembly, dances, games, Prom) or within a school building.
In a public school, the administration may conduct a “warrantless search” if it has reasonable suspicion about based on a review of all of the circumstances (totality) surrounding the conduct
There are three (3) types of permissible searches in a public school:
- General or random searches of the student body;
- Individualized searches of a student;
- Questioning of a student
Do students have any constitutional rights while on school grounds or at school function?
Students don’t give up all of their constitutional rights when they enter a school building, they just have a different level of protection. Normally a search requires probable cause, but in a school setting a search is constitutional if it is reasonable. There is this distinction because school administrator and teachers are not law enforcement nor are they considered “government actors.”
General searches of the student body
A school may conduct a general or random search of the entire student body if, based on a review of all of the circumstances surrounding its suspicion, the search is reasonable.
A court will evaluate if a general search is reasonable based on the following factors:
- the student’s privacy interest,
- the nature of the intrusion that will be created by the search,
- the notice given by the school and
- the overall purpose to be achieved by the search.
Individual Student Searches
A court will deem the individual search of a student or his property as reasonable if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that a search would produce evidence that the student has violated or is violating school rules or the law. Further the search must reasonably related in scope to the circumstances justifying it.
Questioning a Student
While searches of a student or a student body require “reasonable grounds” school officials don’t need any reasonable suspicion to question a student. School officials may detain and question a student without any reasonable suspicion or Miranda warnings. There are less constitutional protections in a school because courts must balance a student’s expectation to privacy with the goals of a school and student safety.
Conclusion – How should your son or daughter handle a school search?
If you child is searched at school, they should be polite to school official and police. In most situation, school officials or police will not ask for the student’s consent. If the student is asked for consent, they should never give it! The student should simply ask to call a parent. The parent should also not give consent. Giving consent will never help the situation. You and your child have constitutional rights, exercise them! If they are asking for your consent, they either don’t have enough evidence to search and your consent simply waives your constitutional rights. Notice in this article, we haven’t discussed a search conducted by law enforcement. This is entirely different situation and requires a different analysis because police and law enforcement are government actors.
A criminal charge and a possible adjudication can stay with a young adult long into their adult years and sometimes even a lifetime. There are many cases where a felony or even a misdemeanor conviction will not allow a minor to ever purchase a gun or firearm, enter the military, be eligible for certain government programs and educational opportunities. Many of our cases involve the illegal possession of drugs and firearms and typically, these cases occur after a search on school grounds reveals these illegal items.
Contact Our Criminal Defense Lawyers in PA & NJ
Please click here to contact our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers. We offer free case reviews and serve the following areas in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Atlantic City, Camden, Cherry Hill, Chester, Conshohocken, Doylestown, Media, Norristown, Philadelphia, Pottstown, Salem, Upper Darby, Upper Merion, Upper Providence, Vineland & Woodbury areas.