By Steve Morse
Recently, I was approached by a parent of a student at Traverse City
Central High School who asked if I had heard about the drug sweep that
had taken place at the school the day before. I had not. The man
said that although his daughter had not been busted, he wondered
whether such a sweep, conducted with drug-sniffing dogs, was legal.
Reading about it in the paper the following morning, I guessed that
this question might be one on the mind of many other parents,
students, and members of the community. Here is the answer.
Searches of students by school officials are governed, like all
searches, by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That
amendment does not prohibit all searches, only those that are
unreasonable. An illegal search occurs when an expectation of
privacy that society is prepared to consider reasonable is infringed.
The starting point, of course, is that there must be what the courts
consider to be an actual search.
The current state of the law is that a dog sniff of an inanimate
object is not a search under the Fourth Amendment. For example, the
Supreme Court has held that the use of a trained canine to sniff
unattended luggage is not a search. It is different, however, when
dogs are used to sniff a person‘s body, mainly because the level of
intrusiveness is greater (as everyone knows, dogs often sniff parts of
the body that cause personal embarrassment, and some persons have an
irrational fear of dogs). Moreover, people naturally consider their
own bodies to be private -- private to them -- and they feel that
expectation of privacy should be respected by others, most certainly
by government authorities (including police and school officials).
Many drug sweeps conducted in school buildings are thus permissible
under the Constitution because they are conducted by drug-sniffing
dogs of school lockers, previously detached backpacks, and cars parked
in school parking lots, and not of a students person. With respect to
student lockers, courts have generally held that they belong to the
school and therefore students do not have a legitimate expectation of
privacy for items stored in them. And with respect to backpacks,
students cannot be ordered to remove them from their person in order
that the dogs can sniff them; that would violate their Fourth
Thats a general statement of the law: the drug sweep at Central High
School was probably legal. But was it a good idea?
Speaking at the school last week was Mark Fancher, director of the
ACLU of Michigans Racial Justice Work Group, which has issued a
report entitled, Reclaiming Michigans Throwaway Kids: Students
Trapped in the School-to-Prison Pipeline.
As Fancher made clear in his talk, the school-to-prison pipeline is
a disorder in our educational system of epidemic proportions, that is
the result of factors including the criminalization of students. Many
parents of students went through their entire 12 years of public
education without ever experiencing the presence of police officers in
their school building. Today, that experience is commonplace and, as
the ACLU report indicates, the police are often called in to handle
what were once considered routine disciplinary matters.
As Traverse City police Captain Steve Morgan told the Record-Eagle:
Usually the schools will request [a drug sweep] once or twice a year.
We never go unless the school officials request us. We‘ve probably
been to all the area secondary schools at one time or another.
But what exactly is the effect on the students, whether or not they
are busted? Does it encourage trust and respect between students and
teachers, between students and administrators, between young people
and the police? What does it feel like when you‘re 16 years old to be
treated much like a criminal -- which is to say, to be ordered around
by police officers and to have your locker, your backpack, or your
vehicle randomly searched without your permission?
Apart from the anger and resentment it likely caused, was the drug
sweep cost-effective? At Central High last week there were police
officers and police dogs from three counties effecting a lock down,
disrupting classes and interfering with other activities -- for what?
The sweep netted one arrest: one student was charged with possessing
about two grams of marijuana. Though the belongings of every student
may not have been searched, it still amounted to one arrest in a
student body of 1,500. One out of 1,500 (an arrest percentage of
0.067%) is not a particularly good effectiveness indicator, is it?
Now Im not so naive to assume that none of the students at Central
High ever use marijuana, but it‘s also clear that the school does not
have a widespread, over-the-top drug problem on its hands either.
Simply put, it was not a good use of taxpayer money.
Nelson Mandela said: There can be no keener revelation of a society‘s
soul than the way in which it treats its children. Think about it,
administrators, teachers, and parents at Central High School. You can
bet the students are.
Steve Morse is an attorney who heads-up the local chapter of the ACLU.