Search Of Student Who Left Campus Without Permission And Then Returned Was Lawful

Lozano Smith Client News Brief
January 2011
Number 2

The California Court of Appeal has held that a search of a student who left campus without authorization and returned to school during the school day was lawful based upon a school policy permitting such searches. (In re Sean A. (December 22, 2010) ___Cal.App.4th___)

In the case a high school maintained a written policy stating that "students who return to campus after being ‘out-of-bounds' are subject to a search of their person, their possessions, and vehicle when appropriate." "Out-of-bounds" areas under the policy included, but were not limited to, parking lots, bike, moped and motorcycle parking areas, athletic fields, private property and areas surrounding the campus. During annual school registration, students and their parents were required to sign an acknowledgement that they have read the policy.

 A student left and returned to campus without permission. Per the school's policy, the assistant principal called the student into his office and asked him to empty the contents of his pockets, revealing a plastic bag containing 44 pills of ecstasy. After being arrested, the student told the police he left campus to pick up the pills and had sold some of them on the way back to campus. After a juvenile court declared the student a ward of the court based upon his possession of a controlled substance for sale, the student challenged the search on appeal, contending that it was unlawful. 

The appellate court held that the search was lawful and conducted pursuant to a valid, established policy. The policy applied generally; every student who leaves campus and returns is subject to search upon return. Both students and their parents were notified of the policy in advance of its application. The court was also influenced by the limited nature of the search: the student was not subjected to physical touching, nor was he exposed to the intimate process related to urine sampling for drug testing. Rather, the student was simply asked to empty his pockets or open his backpack. Moreover, the court found that the school's policy addressed the school's interest in providing a safe environment for students and staff, as violation of the policy could easily lend itself to the introduction of drugs or weapons into the school environment. 

While the student did not file for a rehearing of this matter before the Court of Appeal, time for seeking review of the decision by the California Supreme Court has not expired at the time of the publication of this Client News Brief. Considering the spirited dissent authored by one of the appellate justices in the case, there is a likelihood that the student will seek review from the State's high court. We will continue to monitor this decision and will issue updates as is called for.

 If you have any questions regarding this case, or any other questions regarding lawful searches of students by school administrators, please do not hesitate to contact one of our eight offices located statewide or consult our website.

Sloan R. Simmons
Shareholder and Student Practice Group Co-Chair
Sacramento Office

Kinna P. Crocker
Santa Rosa Office

2011 Lozano Smith
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As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.