School police justified in searching student’s backpack, COA holds

The search by school police of a student’s backpack was justified based on a teacher’s suspicion that the backpack may have contained drugs or weapons, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Thursday. The officer’s search turned up a gun.

R.M., an Indianapolis high school student, asked his teacher Jane Buckingham if he could leave his backpack behind her desk. Students are not allowed to carry backpacks from class to class, but Buckingham allowed it because she thought it contained equipment R.M. might need due to a medical condition. But after class was over, R.M. left the room without the backpack and did not come back for it at the time of day the teacher believed he would need the medical equipment.

This raised her suspicions, so she contacted Indianapolis Public Schools Police Sgt. Jeffrey Brunner, who searched the backpack and found a gun in one shoe and a magazine in the other shoe.

R.M. was adjudicated as a delinquent child for committing what would be Class C felony carrying a handgun without a license and Class D felony possession of a firearm inside a school if committed by an adult. He appealed, claiming the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

The Indiana Supreme Court has held that students are entitled to less privacy at school than adults would enjoy in comparable situations. And the U.S. Supreme Court has held a school official’s search of a student is not subject to Fourth Amendment warrant requirement and does not require the same degree of suspicion that constitutes probable cause.

“We believe that it was reasonable for Sergeant Brunner to act on Buckingham’s suspicions of the presence of drugs or weapons in the backpack. As such, we conclude that the search was justified at its inception,” Judge Cale Bradford wrote. “We further conclude that the scope of the search was reasonably limited as Sergeant Brunner found the weapon after merely unzipping the bag and peering inside. Furthermore, we observe that had Sergeant Brunner not acted on the information provided to him by Buckingham, most would consider him derelict in his duties for failing to examine the backpack, thereby exposing the children who attended Northwest High School to unnecessary risk. Thus, we cannot say that his decision to search the backpack was unreasonable.”

The case is R.M. v. State of Indiana, 49A02-1403-JV-206.

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