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Can Schools Confiscate and Search Student Cell Phones?

The Pensacola News Journal reports that officials from West Florida High School in the Escambia County School District confiscated and searched a student’s cell phone after a disciplinary incident on a school bus. The phone contained no evidence of wrongdoing by the student, and the student’s mother questioned the school’s authority for its actions.  What are a juvenile’s rights to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures in a school setting, particularly where cellphones are involved?

The Fourth Amendment and Schools

The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from being subjected to unreasonable governmental searches and seizures.  Generally, a search without a warrant is considered unreasonable.  In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court extended this protection to cellphones, holding in Riley v. California that police need a warrant to search a cellphone seized from someone who has been arrested.  But the situation in schools is a little different.

Under the Supreme Court’s decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O., the Fourth Amendment still applies in a school setting.  Students have a legitimate expectation of privacy, but that expectation must be balanced against the school’s need to protect the learning environment.  Schools therefore do not need a warrant to search students, but a search must be reasonable.  The Court articulated a two-part test for determining whether a school search is reasonable:

  1. The search must be justified at its inception. This means that school officials must have reasonable grounds to believe that a search will discover evidence that a student has broken or is breaking either the law or school policy.
  2. The search must be reasonably related in scope to the nature of the infraction and not unreasonably intrusive.

School Cellphone Searches

The Pensacola story quotes an Assistant State Attorney who says that the school’s actions were permitted under Florida law.  But a federal appeals court has concluded, based on the Supreme Court’s T.L.O. decision, that not all school cellphone searches are legal.

An Education Week story discusses a decision from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals concluding that a Kentucky school administrator’s search of a student’s texts violated the student’s Fourth Amendment rights. The student in question, identified as G.C., had a history of disciplinary infractions involving drugs and was known to have battled depression and had suicidal thoughts.  When G.C. was caught texting in class one day (a violation of school policy), an assistant principal searched his phone for evidence that he was contemplating suicide.  The appeals court, applying the two-part test described above, concluded that the phone search was not justified at its inception, because the school did not have a specific reason at the time of the search to believe that the student was engaged in an unlawful activity.  G.C.’s disciplinary history alone was not enough to justify the search.

Consult an Orlando Juvenile Offenses Attorney

The only conclusion we can draw at this point is that sometimes student cellphone searches are permissible, and sometimes they are not, depending on the circumstances.  If you are concerned about a school’s search of your child or their possessions, contact the experienced Florida attorneys of The Baez Law Firm for a consultation on your case.

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