Search Of Student’s Purse After A Fight Finds Marijuana Case

Here’s WHAT HAPPENED:  SVJ and another student got into a fight.  She was taken to the office.  Mr. Dodds, a school administrator stepped out of the office for a moment.  When he returned he said SVJ looked startled or surprised, put her purse under her arm and her jacket over her shoulder.  He said it looked like she was trying to hide her purse.  Although he did not normally search students after a fight, he decided to have a female school official search SVJ’s purse.  The purse search revealed marijuana.  In court Dodds said they had no information about SVJ’s possession of  a weapon, drugs or other contraband at the time of the fight.  He said the only reason he had her purse searched was her startled look  She was convicted in Juvenile Court, but her conviction was reversed on appeal.opd85f_2.thm

The  reviewing court, pointing to other cases, said  hunches or gut feelings do not add up to “reasonable suspicion” that would lawfully permit a purse search.    Specifically, there were no facts,  known by Dodds at the time of the fight,  that  SVJ’s purse might contain drugs, a weapon or other contraband.   The fact she “looked startled” did not provide facts that were legally sufficient to justify searching her purse.  If there was some facts that the students were fighting over drugs or the students were high on drugs,  then searching her purse would be justified.  Here the were no facts  known at the time of the fight (or produced after the fight) that justified searching SVJ’s purse.

The learning point for school officials is this – even if the detention of the student is based on reasonable suspicion (as it was here)  the scope of a search after the detention must be directly related to the reason for stopping the student in the first place.  Here it was just a fight.   In this court’s view, when he directed the search of her purse, Mr. Dodds was acting more on a “hunch” rather than on facts.     Courts do not like searches based on speculation, hunches or conjecture – they want facts.    Accordingly,  this court held the scope of the search (after a valid detention) violated SVJ’s 4th Amendment  search and seizure rights.  Because it was an unlawful search,  the marijuana recovered could not be used as evidence in court.   These cases are all FACT SPECIFIC.  Therefore, school policies must be based on facts.


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