Tuesday, November 9, 2010

New Case on School Cell Phone Searches

The High School Journalists I wrote about previously may have been on to something.

In a case decided earlier this month, a federal district court considered whether the search of a cell phone by school officials violated a student's Fourth Amendment rights.

The case is J.W. v. DESOTO COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Civil Action No. 2:09-cv-00155-MPM-DAS, United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Delta Division. A copy can be found here.

In this case, the students was observed using the cell phone by a district employee; a violation of school rules. The phone was confiscated. A school employee then viewed the photographs on the phone, and found pictures of the student dancing in his home bathroom and one photograph of another student holding a B.B. gun. The school accused the student of having "gang pictures." At a disciplinary hearing, a police officer testified that he recognized gang signs in the photographs and the student was a threat to school safety.

The student later sued for violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. In particular – and of interest here – the student claimed that while the school could confiscate the cell phone when the student violated the rule against use, "the pictures were personal and expressive in nature and taken at home, and were therefore protected by the Fourth Amendment. . . . No school rule gave R.W. notice that by bringing his phone to school, his personal information would be subject to search by school officials."

The court rejected this claim. The court relied reasoned that in a school setting, a search is permissible if it is reasonable under all the circumstances. In this case, the court held that if the student was observed using the phone, then it is reasonable to determine why the student was using the phone.

I am curious to see how other courts handle this issue. It may be a stretch to suggest that sending or receiving a text or call in school – in violation of the rules – can permit school officials to search through the contents of a student's personal life. And as more of a our personal lives live on our cell phones, the greater the opportunity for government officials to rummage through that life looking for bad acts unrelated to the original excuse for seizing the cell phone. Indeed, the court was troubled by this aspect of the case, writing, "The court thus has serious concerns regarding the school district's actions in this case." And suggested that the District settle in a footnote, adding: "The court is confident that the school district acted with the best of intentions when it expelled [the student], but it must recognize that there are limits (including in its own rules) upon the power of school officials to police the private lives of their students."

1 comment:

  1. I predict that the school will lose on appeal. The school would only have reason to search the phone to gather evidence of the crime alleged (using a phone on school grounds). They, like any other branch of the State, can't be permitted to go on fishing expeditions.