ILNews

Court weighs individual rights, school violence

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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An Indiana Court of Appeals decision today grabs you with the first lines, setting the groundwork for an intriguing read whether you're an attorney or not.

"In this case of first impression, we balance the private rights of students and citizens against our schools' need to identify individuals on school property in this post-Columbine world," Judge Cale Bradford wrote. "More specifically, we are asked to determine whether a school police officer may conduct a pat-down search of a student on school grounds for the sole purpose of finding the student's identification card if he fails to produce it when asked to do so."

The 14-page unanimous ruling comes in D.L. v. State of Indiana, No. 49-A04-0703-JV-192, and affirms a juvenile court judgment involving an Indianapolis Public Schools incident in September 2006.

A school police officer encountered D.L. and two other students in a second-floor hallway at Arsenal Tech High School during a non-passing period, and they told her that they didn't have passes or ID cards. The officer performed a pat-down search on D.L., who'd put something down his pants, and then handcuffed him and took him to the police office where another officer conducted a search and found a clear plastic bag with 1.03 grams of marijuana.

The state filed a petition alleging D.L. to be a delinquent child based on the possession of marijuana, a Class A misdemeanor if committed by an adult. The juvenile court later denied D.L.'s motion to suppress the evidence obtained in what he described as a warrantless search, and he was ultimately committed to the Department of Corrections for 18 months. D.L. appealed.

"Balancing the student's rights against the interests of school safety, we conclude the pat-down search... does not violate the student's rights against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution," the appellate court wrote.

In making its decision, the court relied on caselaw that involves searches conducted by public school officials, both federally and in Indiana. The court noted that in considering several cases, judges have generally found school searches to be reasonable under the circumstances and endorsed justifications offered by the investigating school officials conducting the searches.

"We believe that in this post-9/11, post-Columbine age of increasing school violence, a public school police officer's determination that she must identify the individuals with whom she is in contact similarly warrants our endorsement," the court wrote, citing a case it had decided a year ago that recognized the essential police function of being able to ask people for identification.

"We are unpersuaded that D.L.'s admission to being in violation of school rules somehow obviates the officer's need to confirm this violation, or her accompanying need to identify him via any identification card potentially on his person," the court wrote.

Chief Judge John Baker concurred, but wrote a separate opinion delving further into the court's already "thoughtful analysis" of past caselaw.

He commented on the Indiana Supreme Court case two years ago of Myers v. State, 839 N.E.2d 1154, 1160 (Ind. 2005), which in turn had cited a previous ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States in New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985) that is considered the leading case on this issue.

Chief Judge Baker wrote the school officer's actions were reasonable and crucial in determining whether the three were students and what the potential for danger might be, not only in determining whether his assertion about not having identification was true.
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