Americans are protected from "unreasonable searches and seizures" under U.S. Constitution -- specifically the Fourth Amendment. That means that in areas, like one's home, where there's an "expectation of privacy," law enforcement officers generally can't conduct a search without first obtaining a search warrant based on "probable cause" that there has been criminal activity.
Reasonable Suspicion vs. Probable Cause
Those protections, however, often don't extend to students on school grounds. Employees only need to have "reasonable suspicion" that a student has violated the law or even simply school policy to conduct a justifiable search without a warrant.
That suspicion can be based on the employee's observations of violations of law or policy, or knowledge of violations obtained from a reliable source. There also has to be a direct connection between the violation, the location of the search (such as a locker) and the item(s) being searched for.
Students may feel like their lockers are their private domain. However, they don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their lockers as long as there is notification of that fact posted. The same is true for vehicles in the school parking lot. School employees can search those locations as long as they have a reasonable suspicion that there is evidence of a crime or school violation there. This may include things like drugs, alcohol, stolen property or a weapon.
School Employees Have Greater Latitude Than Law Enforcement Officers
Law enforcement officers are under stricter regulations regarding school searches. They are required to have "probable cause" rather than reasonable suspicion unless they're conducting a search at the direction of a school official. An exception to that is drug-sniffing dogs. K-9 police officers can sniff a student's belongings, locker or car, but they aren't supposed to sniff students.
To further complicate matters, many school resource officers (SROs) are professional law enforcement officers. Therefore, they need to abide by the rules governing other law enforcement officers regarding searches.
All of this can be confusing for students. When subjected to a search, they may not know what their rights are or be too frightened or intimidated to try to assert them. Objecting to a search may only make things worse.
If your child is facing charges as the result of a search conducted at school, it's essential to determine whether that search was conducted legally and within the regulations spelled out by the school or school district. A juvenile criminal defense attorney can help ensure that evidence that was improperly obtained isn't used against your child.
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