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Are Searches at Florida Schools Constitutional?

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Violence, drug crimes, and other unlawful conduct in school have prompted many administrators to take a hard stance against criminal activity on school grounds. As part of their strategy to make the premises safe, an increasing number of schools are conducting searches of their students. These investigations raise many constitutional questions, especially under the US Constitution and Section 12 of the Florida Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

If you or your child was searched in violation of your civil rights, you should discuss your circumstances with a knowledgeable Florida criminal defense attorney. Some background information may also be helpful.

1985 Supreme Court Case Sets Precedent: The landmark case on school searches, New Jersey v. TLO, came to the Supreme Court of the US (SCOTUS) on appeal of a drug crimes conviction. A high school student was detained when a teacher discovered her smoking cigarettes in violation of school rules. The principal conducted a search of the girl’s purse to find marijuana, cash, and other incriminating items in her purse. She was arrested and convicted for selling drugs.

TLO appealed the decision through the state court system, on the grounds that the principal’s conduct violated her right to be protected from unlawful search and seizure. SCOTUS upheld the conviction, noting several key constitutional findings regarding searches in schools:

  • Administrators, teachers, and other school employees do qualify as “public officials,” so unlawful search and seizure rules apply just as they do to police officers.
  • The reasonableness standard is critical: If the person being searched has a reasonable expectation of privacy, any evidence resulting from the search is inadmissible in court.
  • Students have a reduced expectation of privacy at school, so a search is permissible if a teacher or administrator suspects criminal activity.

Reasonableness of the Search: The concept of reasonableness comes into play again when a public official – including a teacher or administrator – suspects criminal activity. The search itself must also be reasonable, based upon a two-part test:

  1. Whether the search was justified on the grounds that the student was engaged in criminal activity or a violation of school rules; and,
  2. Whether the search was logically linked to what the official was attempting to find.

Legal Effect of an Unlawful Search: If the search itself was unlawful, the “exclusionary” rule prevents any illegally obtained evidence to be used in court against you. In other words, any contraband – such as drugs, weapons, or other illegal items – cannot be introduced as evidence while the prosecutor is presenting the allegations against you. In many cases, this will prevent the prosecution from proving that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Discuss Your Concerns with an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

Searches at school can be tricky because application of the reasonableness standard is very case-specific. However, you do have rights and a potential defense for unlawful search and seizure. If you have questions or concerns about a school search of your child, please contact attorney Kevin J. Kulik. We can answer your questions or schedule a confidential consultation at our Fort Lauderdale office.

leg.state.fl.us/Statutes/index.cfm?Mode=Constitution&Submenu=3&Tab=statutes&CFID=35861789&CFTOKEN=60fba7b56b6ada45-37B1582A-5056-B837-1A62EE8E019830D6#A1S12

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