Was the pat down search “justified at the inception”?

When school officials conduct a search of a student’s personal property the search is subject to the requirements of the 4th Amendment.  In the school setting, a search is permissible if it was 1) justified at the inception; and 2) reasonable in scope. 

The search of J.A.M. in Kirby Middle School in San Antonio was certainly “reasonable in scope.” The officer did a “pat down.” No clothing was removed.  Nothing intrusive was done. 

But the lawyer representing the student in the criminal case argued that the search was based on an “uncorroborated anonymous tip” and thus there was no basis for it in the first place.   The officer who conducted the pat down did not know who tipped off the school, and in fact he testified that “I guess they had an anonymous tip.”  But the principal and the school secretary were not acting on the basis of an anonymous tip. A student had tipped them off that J.A.M. might have a gun.  The tip came from a student that the principal considered a reliable source, who had provided good information in the past.  The principal apparently did not inform the officer of all that background, simply asking him to conduct the search. So the officer did not have all of the information that the principal had.  The court concluded that the “collective” knowledge of the school officials satisfied the standard. The search was “justified at the inception.” 

It turned out that the boy did have a gun and it was loaded, wearing it right there on his hip.  As I think you readers all understand, the legality of a search is not justified simply because it produced the item it sought.  The legality of the search will be assessed based on what the school official knew, and what he or she did. Was it justified at inception? Was it reasonable in scope?  Those are the issues—not: did you find it?

Nevertheless, the court’s opinion includes a footnote that hints at the notion that judges can usually find a way to get to the proper result.  The court notes that an “uncorroborated anonymous tip” would ordinarily not be sufficient to justify a search. But then the footnote: 

Where an anonymous tip involves the presence of a weapon on school campus, however, ‘the circumstances presented might not be characterized as ‘ordinary’ and the balance might tilt more strongly in favor of the government interest involved.

The case is In the Matter of J.A.M.  It was decided by the Court of Appeals in San Antonio on March 11, 2020. We found it at 2020 WL 1159045.