Warrantless Search of Student’s Unattended Bookbag Upheld in Ohio

School police did not violate 4th Amendment by Searching Student’s Bag

The Ohio Supreme Court unanimously held on May 11, 2017 that a warrantless school search of a high school student’s unattended book bag was not an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. The court held that such searches are justified by a school’s obligation to keep students safe in the era of the Columbine and Sandy Hook campus attacks. See Ohio v. Polk, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-2735.

Police Discover Bullets and Handgun

The book bag belonged to Joshua Polk, a student at Whetstone High school in Columbus, Ohio. A school security officer first gave it a cursory search to determine who owned it and that it was not dangerous. However, recalling a rumor that the student was in a gang, the officer took the bag to the principal’s office, where he conducted a more thorough search and discovered bullets. A police officer and the security officer followed up by searching the student/owner of the book bag. They found a handgun in another bag the student had with him.

Student’s Lawyers file Suppression Motion

The student was charged with crimes related to gun possession at a school. His defense lawyers argued that the searches violated the student’s Fourth Amendment rights. They said the discovery of the gun was the fruit of an unconstitutional search. They argued that the more thorough search of the bag because of a rumor of gang affiliation was unjustified and must be suppressed from the evidence to be introduced at trial.

Ohio Supreme Court reverses Lower Court Decisions upholding Legality of Search

Two lower courts agreed with the student’s lawyers but the Ohio Supreme Court did not. The Ohio Supreme Court noted that schools have faced deadly shootings such as at Columbine High School in Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, and that the entire nation has been more suspicious of unattended luggage and bags in the age of terrorism.

Right of Privacy Limited in Schools Where Safety Concerns

Quoting a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bd. of Edn. of Indep. School Dist. No. 92 of Pottawatomie Cty. v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822, 122 S.Ct. 2559, 153 L.Ed.2d 735 (2002), the court noted that a “student’s privacy interest is limited in a public school environment where the State is responsible for maintaining discipline, health, and safety.”

The Court said that the school’s search protocol for unattended backpacks and bags “supports the compelling governmental interest in public-school safety by helping to ensure that the contents of the bags are not dangerous and in turn that [the school’s] students remain safe from physical harm.”

Case Remanded for Trial

The court sent the student’s case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

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