Individualized Suspicion Required For Student Searches

In the 1985 case, New Jersey v. T.L.O., the U.S. Supreme Court established that school officials may conduct a student search if they have "reasonable suspicion" that a school rule or law has been violated, and that a search will turn up evidence of the violation. This reasonable suspicion standard was adopted into law in South Carolina in 1994. In a case decided earlier this fall, DesRoches v. Caprio, et al., the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ( the federal appeals court which has jurisdiction over South Carolina) reiterated the principle that school officials must have individualized suspicion to conduct a search of a student or his/her belongings. The Court further suggested that group searches, at least under the facts present in the DesRoches case, would be impermissible under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides protection against unreasonable searches.

The DesRoches case arose out of a ten-day suspension of a ninth-grade student, James DesRoches, for refusing to consent to a search of his backpack by school officials who were investigating the disappearance of a pair of tennis shoes belonging to another student in DesRoches' art class. The tennis shoes had disappeared during a lunch break from the art class. The matter was reported to an administrator, James Lee, who learned that the art teacher had remained in the classroom during the lunch period. The teacher reported that the only students who had come into the classroom during the lunch period were her art students. Based upon this information, Lee decided to conduct a search of the personal belongings of all nineteen art students.

Lee informed the nineteen art students of his intent to conduct the searches and asked for their permission. DesRoches and another student refused to consent. After Lee reminded the two students of the school's policy which authorized a ten-day suspension for a student's refusal to consent to a search, the other student consented. DesRoches continued to refuse. Lee then told DesRoches that he could "just sit there and [they] would talk about it later." The backpacks and other personal belongings of the eighteen other students were then searched. The searches did not result in the discovery of the missing shoes. At that point, Lee escorted DesRoches to the principal's office, where the school principal, Michael Caprio, again asked DesRoches for permission to search his backpack. When DesRoches again refused, Caprio allowed DesRoches to call and discuss the matter with his parents. DesRoches, however, continued to refuse consent and, at that point, was suspended for ten days.

DesRoches subsequently filed suit in federal court, alleging a violation of his civil rights under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U. S. Constitution. The trial court dismissed DesRoches' First and Fourteenth Amendment claims, but concluded that school officials had violated DesRoches' right to be free from unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment. The school district appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The sole issue on appeal was whether the trial court properly concluded that the proposed search of DesRoches was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

In considering the reasonableness of the proposed search, the Fourth Circuit looked to the New Jersey v. T.L.O. standard and noted that in order for a student search to be reasonable, it must be based on an individualized suspicion of wrongdoing, except in certain limited cases. Specifically, a student search conducted in the absence of individualized suspicion would be reasonable, in the Court's view, only where the privacy interests implicated by the search are minimal and the school district is able to demonstrate a compelling interest in conducting the search, such as where there is an immediate threat of harm.

Because there were no such compelling reasons to abandon the individualized suspicion requirement in this case, the Court proceeded with its consideration of whether the proposed search of DesRoches was supported by a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing specifically on the part of DesRoches. Notably, the Court stated that it was proper to look at the facts available to school officials at the time the decision was made to suspend DesRoches for his refusal to consent to the search, after the other eighteen students had been searched and the tennis shoes had not been found. By the process of elimination of the other eighteen students, the court concluded that school officials did at that point have individualized suspicion that DesRoches might be in possession of the shoes. The Court therefore concluded that school officials did not violate DesRoches' right to be free from unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment, and overturned the trial court's ruling.

It is important to note that the Court's decision is based on the fact that school officials had eliminated all other possible suspects by conducting searches of the other eighteen students and that, as a result, individualized suspicion of DesRoches had arisen. Prior to searching all of the other eighteen students, this individualized suspicion had not yet developed. Thus, it can be inferred that had the searches been challenged by any of the other eighteen students, or if DesRoches had been suspended for refusing to consent to a search before the other searches were completed, the Court would likely have concluded that the searches were not based on individualized suspicion and thus were unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. This suggests that group searches, as a way to eliminate suspects, would not be permissible unless there was a reasonable basis to suspect wrongdoing on the part of each member of the group.

The DesRoches decision clarifies that individualized suspicion normally is required any time a school official proposes to conduct a search of a student and/or that student's personal belongings. Certainly, prior to undertaking any search, school officials should carefully review all of the circumstances to determine whether there is a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing and whether the suspicion is truly individualized.