Drugs and weapons in our public schools have always been a source of great concern. To address that concern, the Ohio state legislature passed a law in 1998 describing the circumstances under which a student’s locker can be searched by the school principal. Under this law, the principal of a public school was given authority to search a student’s locker, and the contents of that locker, if:

  • The principal reasonably suspects that the locker, or its contents, contains evidence of a student’s violation of a criminal law or a school rule
  • Or the board of education posts a conspicuous sign stating that all student lockers are school property and are subject to random searches, regardless of whether or not a student is reasonably suspected to have committed a crime or a rule violation.

However, a recent Ohio appeals court decision found that the second part of the Ohio law was unconstitutional. In making that decision, the court relied on the 1985 ruling of the United States Supreme Court in New Jersey. The Lake County, Ohio appeals court interpreted that ruling to mean that searches based upon reasonable suspicion are, indeed, reasonable, but that random searches, based only upon the posting of a warning sign, are not. Therefore, a school principal may search a student’s locker only if there is cause to reasonably suspect that the locker contains evidence that the student has violated a criminal law or a school rule.

This decision is important, not only to school officials, but also to police officers

Law enforcement officers are often asked to “stand by” during locker searches, to provide security and to receive any incriminating evidence that is found. The police officer may be the first line of defense in preventing an illegal search that could result in the loss of important evidence.

So when is the school principal permitted to search a student’s locker?

The principal must have a reasonable suspicion that the student has violated a criminal law or a school rule.

The facts of the New Jersey case supported the principal’s search of the school locker, not because the school had posted a notice that lockers were subject to random searches, but because the student had been caught smoking cigarettes on school property. That fact gave the principal grounds to reasonably suspect that the student’s locker contained evidence of a rule violation. Therefore, the search was held to be valid, and when marijuana was also found in the student’s locker, it was admissible as evidence in juvenile court.

And how does this apply to “sniffer dog” cases?

A dog sniff of school lockers is not a “search” that would be protected under the Fourth Amendment. However, if a dog alerts authorities to a specific locker, the search of that locker is not a random search. The dog’s actions have provided the school principal with a reasonable suspicion that the locker contains contraband and that the student who occupies that locker has violated a criminal law.

Although the Ohio Supreme Court has not passed judgment on this issue as of this writing, police officers should assume that school locker searches will be subject to the following limitations:

  • A school principal may search a student’s locker only if there is cause to reasonably suspect that the locker contains evidence that the student has violated a criminal law or a school rule.
  • A dog sniff does not constitute a “search” of a locker, but if the dog alerts to the locker, it will provide the reasonable suspicion required to search that locker.
  • A random search of lockers is not permissible, even if the school posts a notice that lockers are subject to such searches.

If police officers and school officials follow these simple rules, the courts of Ohio should continue to support all cooperative efforts to protect schools from drugs and weapons.

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