Drugs and weapons in our public schools have always been a source of great concern. In an attempt to address that concern, the Ohio legislature enacted a law describing the circumstances under which a student's locker can be searched by the school principal. However, a recent Ohio appeals court decision indicates that part of this law may be unconstitutional.
Under current Ohio law, the principal of a public school may search a student's locker, and the contents of that locker, if:
In the case of In Re Adams (June 30, 1997), the Lake County Court of Appeals held that the second part of the Ohio law was unconstitutional. In making that decision, the court relied on the 1985 ruling of the United States Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O. that school locker searches must be "reasonable." The Lake County court interpreted that ruling to mean that searches based upon reasonable suspicion are, indeed, reasonable, but that random searches, based only upon the posting of a warning sign, are not.
This decision is important, not only to school officials, but also to police officers. Law enforcement officers are often asked to "stand by" during locker searches, for security purposes and for the purpose of receiving any incriminating evidence. Therefore, a police officer may be the first line of defense in preventing an illegal search that could result in the loss of important evidence.
So when is it appropriate for the school principal to search a student's locker? There must be a reasonable suspicion that the student has violated a criminal law or a school rule. The facts of In Re Adams supported the principal's search of the school locker, not because the school had posted a notice that lockers were subject to random searches, but because the student had been caught smoking cigarettes on school property; that fact gave the principal grounds to reasonably suspect that the student's locker contained evidence of a rule violation. Therefore, the search was held to be valid, and when marihuana was also found in the student's locker, it was admissible as evidence in juvenile court.
And how does this apply to "dog sniff" cases? The rules have not changed. As we have previously stated (Crime & Punishment, November, 1997), a dog sniff of school lockers is not a "search" that would be protected under the Fourth Amendment. However, if a dog alerts to a specific locker, the search of that locker is not a random search because the dog's actions have provided the school principal with a reasonable suspicion that the locker contains contraband, and that the student who occupies that locker has violated a criminal law.
Although the Ohio Supreme Court has not passed judgment on this issue, police officers should assume that school locker searches will be subject to the following limitations:
If police officers and school officials follow these simple rules, the courts of Ohio should continue to support our cooperative efforts to protect our schools from drugs and weapons.