The Supreme Court decided long ago that school officials occupy a place that is somewhere in between the parents and the police. They didn’t quite put it that way in the case of New Jersey v. T.L.O., but that was the basic idea. Many of you are familiar with that case. It’s the case where the Supremes held that the 4th Amendment applies in the school setting, but not as strictly as it does to the police. The case arose when Assistant Principal Choplick (is that a great name for an A.P., or what?) poked around in the purse of young T.L.O., whose real name we may never know. Looking for cigarettes, Choplick found evidence of drug dealing instead. T.L.O.’s lawyer argued that the search was illegal because there was no warrant.
The Supreme Court held that school officials don’t need a warrant. They have to act reasonably, though. They have to have a “reasonable suspicion” that the search will uncover some evidence of a violation of school rules. Choplick’s search was legal.
Thus there is a spectrum with regard to a student’s right to privacy. At one end are the parents. If they have the courage to poke around their teenager’s bedroom, there is no law that can stop them. Children have no right of privacy as to their parents. On the other end of the spectrum we have the police. When they conduct a search, they must fully comply with the 4th Amendment. This generally involves a warrant, although there are numerous exceptions to that, too complicated to go into on this hot July day.
Then you have the school officials, somewhere on the privacy spectrum between the parents and the cops. They don’t need a warrant; but they can’t just arbitrarily snoop around a student’s personal belongings.
New Jersey v. T.L.O. was decided thirty years ago—long before cell phones. But its principles are still valid. Moreover, numerous courts have held that the search of a cell phone is just that—it’s a “search.” That means the 4th Amendment applies. That means there has to be some reasonable basis for the search.
So the answer to today’s question is “yes.” It is risky to search the contents of a student’s cell phone. Students, like all of us, have a lot of private, personal information on their cell phones. School officials should pause a moment before looking at the pictures, the emails, the texts. What are you looking for? Why do you think you will find evidence of a violation of school rules on the cell? These are good questions to ask yourself before conducting any search of a student’s personal belongings, including the ubiquitous cell phone.
DAWG BONE: LOOKING AROUND ON SOMEONE ELSE’S CELL PHONE IS A “SEARCH.” BE CAREFUL!