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Police Involvement Does Not Always Invalidate Search

Jack Ryan

An issue that is often raised in school search cases is the question as to what level of police involvement will require that a search be supported by probable cause rather than the reasonable suspicion standard allowed for school officials.

A case on point was decided by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently. In the Interest of A.D., 844 A.2d 20 (PA. Super. Ct. 2004).

A.D. involved a physical education class where some students participated in the activities while others simply watched from the gymnasium bleachers. Several of the students who were participating left their belongings in the bleachers.

At the end of the class, two female students immediately reported that they were missing money from their pocketbooks which had been left in the bleachers. One of the females had $22.00 missing while the other reported $61.00 missing.

Upon receiving this report, the physical education teacher immediately segregated the students who had remained in the bleachers with access to the money from those who were participating in the gym class. The physical education teacher called the assistant principal. The assistant principal called the police, prompting the response of Sergeant Coolbaugh of the Exeter Borough Police Department.

The assistant principal, along with Sergeant Coolbaugh, spoke with the two victims of the theft. The assistant principal then escorted each of the male students, who had remained in the bleachers during the class, to a private area and searched their book bags and their pockets without success.

A female hall monitor was called to assist in searching the females. One of the females, A.D. appeared very nervous and suggested that the school officials search her first. In doing so, the assistant principal found the stolen $83.00 rolled up in a sock in her book bag along with other evidence from the theft. During the entire search process, Sergeant Coolbaugh had remained outside the area where the searches were conducted and did not, in any way, participate in the searches. In trying to suppress the evidence against her, A.D. argued that the assistant principal was acting as an agent of the police and should be held to the heightened requirements for police officers rather than the reasonable suspicion standard applicable to school officials.

In analyzing the case, the court discussed several factors that may be considered in determining if a school official was acting as an agent of law enforcement. First, what was the purpose of the search? Searching for evidence of a crime or evidence of a school rule violation. Second, who initiated the search? Was it a school official or was it a police officer? Third, did the police acquiesce in the search or in some way ratify the search? “The mere fact that school officials cooperate with the police, however, does not establish that the police acquiesced in or ratified the search. The inquiry must focus on whether the police coerce, dominate or direct the actions of the school officials.”

In this case, the court noted that there was no evidence indicating that Sergeant Coolbaugh participated or in any way directed the search. “Furthermore the purpose of the search was to recover the students’ missing property and return order to a disrupted class. The court concluded that the assistant principal was acting as a school official in conducting the search at issue.

A portion of the decision entered a much grayer area and should be considered with some caution. Since school officials in this case had no heightened suspicion for any individual student from the bleachers, the officials appear to have lacked the requisite individualized suspicion.

The court focused on the fact that the assistant principal limited the search in this case to only those students who had access to the pocketbooks. “This was not a large, random search of the general student population designed to effectuate a broad policy objective, such as circumventing the school’s illegal drug problem. Instead, Mr. Mattes’ conduct was designed to restore immediate order to a class disrupted by theft. Mr. Mattes informal search of the small group of students was the type of immediate and flexible disciplinary procedure the United States Supreme Court condoned in recognition of the fact that school officials need to maintain an orderly educational school environment.”

The court then applied the analysis enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O., and concluded that Mr. Mattes search was justified at its inception and reasonably related in scope to locating the missing money.

The court asserted that “a school official’s particularized search of a small group of students, undertaken with individualized suspicion that one of them committed a theft, does not violate the United States or Pennsylvania Constitutions.

Note: Courts generally disapprove searches which lack individualized suspicion. While the court found individualized suspicion satisfied here, the suspicion was not individualized to a single student but rather to a small group of students.

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