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By Todd Relue, Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP
On Nov. 13, 2014, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled in R.M. v. State of Indiana that a school police officer's search of a student backpack, which revealed a handgun, was constitutional. The incident occurred at an Indianapolis area high school that had a policy against students carrying backpacks between classes. The student, R.M., asked a teacher if he could leave his backpack behind her desk. Believing that the backpack contained medical equipment R.M. needed, the teacher agreed to the request. When R.M. did not return for the backpack in a timely manner, however, the teacher became concerned that the backpack contained contraband and contacted an Indiana Public School Police sergeant. The sergeant opened the backpack and discovered a semi-automatic handgun and its magazine stuffed into a pair of shoes.
The State of Indiana filed a petition in juvenile court seeking a determination that R.M. was a delinquent child for carrying a handgun without a license and possession of a firearm in school, which would have been Class C and Class D felonies respectively if R.M. had been an adult. The juvenile court conducted a fact-finding hearing, considered the handgun as evidence, and placed R.M. on probation. R.M. appealed this determination, claiming the handgun should not have been permitted into evidence because the sergeant's search of R.M.'s backpack had been unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In determining that the search was constitutional, the Court of Appeals relied on well-established jurisprudence that "[i]n light of the fact that minors in school are subject to supervision and control that could not be exercised over free adults and in view of the legislature's codification of the custodial and protective role of Indiana public schools, ... students are entitled to less privacy at school than adults would enjoy in comparable situations." Linke v. Northwestern School Corp., 763 N.E. 2d. 972, 979-80 (Ind. 2002). Relying on both Indiana and U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the Court found that a school official's search of a student is not subject to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement and permits a lower standard of suspicion to justify a search. Berry v. State, 561 N.E.2d 832, 837 (Ind. 1990); New Jersey v. T.L.O., 46 U.S. 325, 340-41 (1985). To determine whether a school official's search of a student was reasonable, a court must determine whether (1) the search was justified at its inception and (2) whether the search as conducted was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances justifying the search. Id.
Here, the Court found that the search of R.M.'s backpack was justified at its inception because R.M. left his backpack unattended and his teacher reported concerns it contained contraband. The Court determined it was reasonable for the sergeant to act on the teacher's suspicions and search the backpack. The search as conducted was also reasonable because the sergeant observed the handle of the gun protruding from one of the shoes as soon as he unzipped the backpack. The Court suggested that if the sergeant had failed to perform the search, he might have been accused of being derelict in his duties, which reinforced the reasonableness of the sergeant's actions. Because the search was constitutional, it was proper for the juvenile court to consider the handgun and its ruling was affirmed.
Todd G. Relue is a member of the firm’s Education Law practice group and advises educational organizations on a variety of legal issues including school formation and charter approval, land acquisition, construction and financing, governance, replication and expansion, and sustainability. He blogs about legal issues related to educational organizations at www.ineducationlaw.com and tweets at @INeducationlaw.
This article was written by Todd Relue of Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP. If you would like to submit content or write an article for the Appellate Practice Section page, please email Mary Kay Price at firstname.lastname@example.org.