Students’ cell phones and the Fourth Amendment

Consider the following fictional scenario. A student was caught smoking in the bathroom, in violation of school policy. The student’s purse was searched by the principal who suspected her of having more cigarettes. The principal discovered cigarettes in her possession, and discovered marijuana, a cell phone, and a written list of alleged users from the school. The principal believed that the cell phone contained information about drugs on campus, and so read several of the text messages. The messages led the principal to other students who had drugs, as well as a non-student who was the supplier. The police were called to arrest the students, and they were ultimately suspended. Is the search of the cell phone a valid search under the Fourth Amendment?

The answer is yes.

In the case of New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), the United States Supreme Court held that the 4th Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures do apply to school officials. However, the U.S. Supreme Court did not require the school to have probable cause for the search, but rather a lower standard of reasonableness. The search of a student by a school official will be justified where 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.

Indeed, when T.L.O. is applied to school polices of cell phones and other devices, the focus will be not on whether such a search is justified, but on the scope of the search. How far can an educator go in searching contents of a phone before it is no longer reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the search in the first place?

At one end of the “how far can the educator go” issue, some searches of a phone will not be controversial at all. For example, an educator who examines the contents of a phone in order to determine its true owner would be acting under the best intentions. The search in this example is directly related in scope to the interest of the educator to make an accurate assessment of ownership. Beyond this safe scenario lies considerable confusion for many educators.

In a school setting, when the initial encounter with the student is based upon reasonable suspicion, the search of the phone will also be valid and requires no additional justification so long as it is reasonably related to the need of the educator to turn up evidence to which the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school. The nature of the violation may go well beyond possession of the phone. It may involve theft of the device, use of the device to text or call other students during the school day, taking pictures or videos of students, or of school exams. The device itself may be housing for a weapon that would otherwise go undetected without a search based on the reasonableness standard.

When applied to cell phone searches, it is clear that the initial seizure and search – that occurs when a student is found in possession (or use) of a phone in violation of school policy – is legitimate. Students have no immunity from the seizure or the search of a phone when its use is beyond what is acceptable within each individual school building, according to school policy.

(Rachel Jordan is the School Resource Officer at Carl Ben Eielson Middle School. She is currently researching the topic of school safety as it relates to the Constitution and its Amendments, in preparation for an upcoming doctoral dissertation.)

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