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Ohio Supreme Court Rules: Warrantless Search of Student's Backpack Is Legal

The Ohio Supreme Court reached a rather controversial decision on Thursday about the Fourth Amendment rights of students on public school grounds. The state's highest court reversed the two lower courts' decisions suppressing the evidence that was discovered during three warrantless searches of a student's backpacks.

In short, the Ohio Supreme Court found that schools may conduct warrantless searches of unattended backpacks to identify who the bag belongs to, and ensure the bag does not contain dangerous items or pose a threat to student safety.

Facts of the Case

The underlying case involves the warrantless search of a backpack that was left on a school bus. The bus driver discovered the backpack and gave it to a school employee. That employee opened the backpack to discover who it belonged to (search #1), then took the bag to the principal, who dumped the bag out on his desk (search #2). Inside the backpack, identifying papers, books and folders were found, along with bullets. That's when the police were called.

After law enforcement arrived, the backpack's owner, a student, was located in the school's hallways, and restrained. The backpack he was carrying was searched (search #3), revealing a handgun. The student was then arrested, and charged with bringing a firearm to school, which is a serious crime, even for a minor.

School Safety Beats Privacy Rights

Under the Fourth Amendment, individuals have a right to privacy which requires authorities to have probable cause and a warrant before conducting a search. However, this right is often limited to allow law enforcement to conduct cursory searches for weapons (such as during a pat down, or bag/purse screening).

Also, if officers suspect that evidence is being destroyed, or evidence will be lost if they must wait for a warrant, then a search may be conducted without a warrant (legally these circumstances are called "exigent circumstances"). When a warrantless search is conducted without exigent circumstances, a defendant can move to have any and all evidence discovered as a result of the search suppressed, or thrown out, due to being discovered by an illegal search (this is called the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine).

This doctrine extends to evidence that would not have been discovered "but for" the initial illegal search. In the Ohio case, it was search #2 that was in question. Since lower courts found that search to be illegal, the bullets found could no longer be used as evidence, and the gun, which was found in the subsequent search, was, as a result of being "fruit of the poisonous tree," also thrown out. 

While the state's Supreme Court decision makes sense, the court's opinion explains that the privacy rights of students must be flexible in order for schools to achieve the compelling public purpose of keeping school children safe. Particularly in this day and age, where an unattended bag or package can often result in the calling of a bomb squad, the court noted that schools are justified in both opening an unattended backpack to determine identity, as well as confirm that there are no dangerous items inside, such as weapons or explosive devices.

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