Probable Cause, Public Schools and the Police: State Action vs. School Action

The “Back to School” preparation week continues for most parents and so does our law firm’s focus on the constitutional rights of students at school.  We strive to provide our readers with the most current information.

Public Schools And The PolicePreviously, I explained the constitutional standard for a legal search in public schools. Courts in Pennsylvania and at the Federal level don’t require school officials to meet the same evidentiary standard for the searches of students in school as those off of school grounds. School officials are permitted to search individual students or the entire student body if they consider the search reasonable based on their suspicion that the student(s) is breaking the law or school policy. By definition, school officials would include teachers, a teacher’s aide, school administrators, school police, and local police school liaison officers. These people all need to satisfy a reasonable suspicion standard if they are acting on their own authority or on the authority of the school official.

If, however, a school official is acting on behalf of police, courts treat the situation much different. School officials must satisfy a probable cause standard which is much higher than a reasonable suspicion. Courts will evaluate whether school officials are acting as agents of police based on the circumstances surrounding the search (totality of the circumstances). Courts will consider (1) the purpose of the search; (2) the party who initiated the search; and (3) whether the police participated in the search or approved it. The mere presence of police with school officials isn’t enough to require the school to establish probable cause before initiating the search of the student or the student body. Courts will look at whether police dominated or directed the action of school officials to determine if it was the school action or a state action. If there is no state action, students have a lower expectation of privacy. Courts must balance that privacy interest against the school’s need to maintain order and discipline within a school environment.

While Pennsylvania grants a higher level of constitutional protection to students, Pennsylvania courts still follow federal courts with regards to balancing student’s privacy vs. maintaining a proper school environment. A student’s lower expectation to privacy applies to such things as school lockers or any other device in a school the student uses to store his personal belongings. Pennsylvania and federal courts have stated that a student’s use of a locker is expressly conditioned upon the acknowledgement that a locker belongs to the school and that the measure of privacy within a locker is therefore limited. The reasonableness of any school search is based on whether the search was reasonably calculated in scope to justify the interference with the student in the first place. A search initiated and conducted by school officials will normally be found constitutional as long as school officials can articulate some type of reasonable suspicion based on student conduct.

If you have questions about criminal defense or your constitutional rights, watch some one or more of my 30 videos online, pick up one of my books or my monthly newsletter.

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