Presented for consideration is proposed revision to Policy No. 3230 Student Privacy and 3230P.
By way of background, both the Fourth Amendment and Washington Constitution Article I, Section 7 protect students from unreasonable search and seizure. In general, non-law enforcement District administrators may search a student without a warrant upon “reasonable suspicion” of a violation of law or school rules, such as the policy against using or possessing drugs. See State v. Meneese, 174 Wn.2d 937, 939 (2012). A search is reasonable when it is both “justified at its inception”—meaning there are grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence—and “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances”—meaning the method of search used is related to the purpose of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age/sex of the student and nature of the infraction. In determining whether an official had reasonable grounds to search, courts consider: (1) the student’s age, history, and school record; (2) the prevalence and seriousness of the problem in the school to which the search was directed; (3) the probative value and reliability of the information justifying the search; and (4) the exigency to make the search without delay. Not all of these factors must be present in a specific case. Generally, a student’s freely given and voluntary consent to a search can make it permissible.
Applying the test above, the Washington Supreme Court upheld a vice principal's search of a student’s car for drugs when the vehicle was parked in an on-campus lot. See State v. Slattery, 56 Wn. App. 820 (1990). (Slattery is the only reported Washington court decision on student vehicle searches that I have located.) The Slattery Court reasoned that: the student was nearly 18; the administrator was told that the student was selling marijuana in the parking lot; the administrator had reason to believe the information based on past experience with informants and earlier reports from others that the student was involved with drugs; the student was carrying a large amount of money in small bills and a pager number that could lead to belief he had drugs in his possession; drug use was a “serious, ongoing problem” at the school; and the fact that the drugs were in a car presented “exigent circumstances” warranting immediate search, when the student or a friend could have moved the car. The Court determined that, under the circumstances, school officials were justified in searching both the student’s car and a briefcase therein; the Court stated that it would have been “anomalous” to limit the search to just the student’s body or his locker.
Thus, the Court viewed the search of a vehicle under the same general lens as a search of the student, his locker, or his belongings. A court might find the search of a student’s vehicle to be unjustified, however, if there is not a clear link between a suspected violation of the law or school rules and the potential contents of a student’s vehicle. In other words, school officials should not routinely search the vehicle of a student suspected of misconduct unless there is evidence suggesting a connection to the student’s vehicle (e.g., the student is said to have a weapon or drugs in the car). Officials should also attempt to gain voluntary student consent prior to the search.
In addition, the Slattery case concerned a vehicle that was on school grounds. It is quite possible that a court would apply a more stringent standard to a search of a student’s vehicle located off-campus, such as at the Wal-Mart near WHS. If the District suspects a student has parked off school property and has contraband in the car, it is recommend to call law enforcement (which may then be required to get a warrant to search the vehicle).