Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Supreme Court weighs school searches, strengthens 4th Amendment in police car searches

Robert Barnes has two important stories (p. A3) about the Supreme Court in the Washington Post Wednesday April 22, 2009. One of them is a (Fourth Amendment) 5-4 ruling to strictly limit the ability of police to (without a warrant) search a car without warrant after a routine traffic stop or arrest, in the case Arizona v. Gant. The opinion at the Court’s site is here. The defendant had been arrested for driving on a suspended license and locked in a police car when officers found cocaine in his jacket. The ruling would limit the searches to circumstances where the suspect could reach for a weapon or destroy evidence. It’s not clear if this ruling could become a major impediment in fighting an increase in particularly violent crimes, sometimes associated with drug cartels and gangs. Police departments around the nation must be having to brief themselves on this ruling very suddenly.

The other story is what has attracted the most attention from the media. In 2003, Savana Redding, then 13, was searched in Safford Middle School on incorrect suspicion of possession of contraband, which in this case was apparently only patent medicines. She was so humiliated that she never returned to the school, and the parents sued the school district in her behalf.

In the oral arguments, the justices seemed to walk a real tightrope, according to media reports. How do you draw the line? Is there a principled difference between a strip search and a body cavity search? Does it matter if the suspected contraband is only aspirin or Rolaids instead of crystal meth? Does the school responsibility to act “in loco parentis” always give them the benefit of the doubt in protecting student safety in cases where circumstances lead to ambiguity? Teachers could face the same questions. We can also see these issues when on-line postings posted from home can (by students or teachers) can impact a school’s operation, discipline or even safety.

The link for Barnes’s story is here.

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