Principal searches teacher’s cell phone. Is that OK?

The kids reported that the substitute teacher was using his cell phone to “take pictures up the skirts of female students.”  Oh boy—here we go. 

The man was brought in for questioning and appeared nervous.  He admitted to the principal that he “had a problem.”  The principal then picked up the man’s cell phone and scrolled through the pictures.   Yep. Some inappropriate pictures of girls who were wearing the school’s uniform. 

The uniform?  Yes—this all happened at a private school, which turned out to be an important factor when the man was prosecuted for attempted production of sexual performance by a child.  The sub teacher sought to exclude the photographs from evidence. His lawyer argued that the search of his cell was illegal.  There was no warrant, nor was there probable cause. Therefore, the argument went, the search violated the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The trial court agreed with that, and held that the incriminating pictures could not be introduced into evidence.  But now our state’s highest criminal court has overturned that decision. The search was legal.  The evidence can be used in the trial. 

The crucial fact was that this was a private school.  The 4th Amendment applies to the U.S. government, the states and political subdivisions like school districts. It does not apply to private individuals or private schools. Key Quote:

We reaffirm that the 4th Amendment is a restraint on government and that it does not apply to private individuals who are acting as such.

If the same thing happened in a public school the analysis would be different. The 4th Amendment does apply. The court would have to determine if the search was justified under the standards that the courts have established for searches by administrators of teachers in a public school.  I expect that most courts would have held that the search was justified. The principal had reliable information about serious misconduct by a teacher.  If the allegations about the teacher were true, the evidence would be on the cell phone.  So I think most courts would have reached the same conclusion, but for a different reason. 

The case is Ruiz v. State, decided by the Court of Criminal Appeals for Texas on July 3, 2019. 


Tomorrow: New questions on the EOC for U.S. History