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When Can a School Search a Student’s Bag?

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By Michelle J. Sheehan

May 24, 2017

Last week the Ohio Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a school’s intrusive search of an unattended bag did not violate a student’s 4th Amendment right to be free from illegal search and seizures because the examination of the bag was a continuation of an earlier search.  The Ohio Supreme Court reversed the Tenth District Court of Appeal’s decision that held that the second search was unreasonable and the evidence discovered in the second search was suppressed.  This decision is important because it reflects the court’s deference to a school’s ability to protect the safety of students in today’s climate over student’s privacy rights at school.

In State v. Polk, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-2735, Joshua Polk, a student at Whetstone High School in Columbus, Ohio left a bag unattended on the school bus.  When the bus driver gave the bag to the school safety coordinator, the safety coordinator opened the bag enough to see some papers and the student’s name.  Suspecting the student was in a gang, the safety coordinator gave the bag to the school principal who emptied the contents of the bag and discovered bullets in the bag.

The principal notified the police officer assigned to the school and had the student located, stopped and held by the police while the safety coordinator searched a bag the student was carrying.  During the search of the second bag, a gun was discovered.  As a result, the student was charged with one count of illegal conveyance or possession of a deadly weapon in a school safety zone.  The student moved to suppress evidence of the bullets and the gun and argued the search and seizures were illegal. 

The trial court held the second search of the bag after the identity of the owner was already discovered was unreasonable.  The court reasoned the second search of the abandoned bag was “solely based on the identity and reputation of the owner.”  The court reasoned that suspecting that the student was in a gang was not enough to conduct a search without a warrant because the student was not suspected of violating a school rule or law at that point in time.  Because the discovery of the gun was based on the illegal search that discovered the bullets, evidence of the gun was also inadmissible.  The Tenth District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court. 

Ultimately, the Ohio Supreme Court determined that the second search of the abandoned bag was simply a continuation of the first search and was permissible.  In balancing a student’s diminished expectation of privacy when leaving a bag unattended on a school bus with the school’s “compelling governmental interest in public school safety” and ensuring students are safe from physical harm, the Court determined that “a complete search of unattended bags is effective in ensuring that they do not contain dangerous contents.”  The Ohio Supreme Court also recognized recent school shootings at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary, Virginia Tech University and elsewhere, and a school’s need to perform more than a cursory search to make sure unattended bags are not dangerous.  Thus, the decision highlights that courts are willing to give greater deference to schools when balancing a student’s right to privacy.

If you have any questions with respect to this decision, or any issue involving schools or government entities, please contact one of our Governmental or Public Entity Liability Practice Group attorneys.

This has been prepared for informational purposes only. It does not contain legal advice or legal opinion and should not be relied upon for individual situations. Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship between the Reader and Reminger. The information in this document is subject to change and the Reader should not rely on the statements in this document without first consulting legal counsel.

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