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Cops in schools can’t search without warrants, Wash. high court rules


Police officers working in schools can’t necessarily search a student without a warrant, even though a teacher usually can. That’s the upshot of a ruling by the Washington State Supreme Courtout Thursday, in a case involving a student at Robinswood High in Bellevue and the murky legal realm of cops in schools.

The Bellevue Police Department has five officers working exclusively in the schools. In this case, one of them caught the student with a bag of marijuana, arrested him, and then searched his locked bag without permission.

The 'school exception'

The U. S. Constitution bars unreasonable search and seizure, which is why police officers need a search warrant to go through someone’s belongings after arrest. School personnel have traditionally been exempted from that requirement. So the question came down to whether a police officer based in a school is more cop or more school official.

In this case, the court ruled that the officer was acting first and foremost as a police officer, complete with uniform and handcuffs. Therefore, he needed the warrant and the search was illegal.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief in the case, and spokesman Doug Honig said they’re happy with the outcome.

“What this ruling recognizes is that our constitution provides some very basic protections for people in terms of search and seizures. And what this says for students is if they’re being dealt with by a police officer in school, they have important rights,” Honig said.

The evidence found in the illegal search – in this case, an air pistol – will be thrown out. The school is still free to impose its own punishment on students.

A fuzzy legal issue

A spokesman for the National Association of School Resource Officers says the ruling is unlikely to change the way school security personnel do their jobs, but he says officers in Washington will have to get clarification from attorneys on what’s allowed and what isn’t. The Bellevue Police Department said only that officers will follow the court’s directives.

The ruling brings some clarity to the issue of cops in schools, a blurry area in the law. Similar cases have come up elsewhere, with the courts taking different sides in different states.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.