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The Ohio Supreme Court Upholds School District’s Unattended Book Bag Search Protocols

In State v. Polk, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-2735, the Ohio Supreme Court held that a “school’s protocol requiring searches of unattended book bags—to determine ownership and whether the contents are dangerous—furthers the compelling governmental interest in protecting public-school students from physical harm [and * * *] that the school employees’ search of the unattended book bag [* * *] was limited to furthering that compelling governmental interest and was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

As we first reported in our March 1, 2017 blog (which contains a video of the oral arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court), the school district “ha[d] an unwritten protocol requiring searches of ‘unattended’ book bags to identify their owners and to ensure that their contents are not dangerous.” Polk at ¶ 3. A bus driver found an unattended book bag during his walk-through of the bus and turned it over to district’s security resource coordinator. The coordinator opened the “bag enough to discern papers, notebooks, [and] a binder.” Polk at ¶ 4. The papers identified the student’s name and, after recalling a rumor that the student “was possibly in a gang,” the coordinator took the bag to the principal where the two “emptied the bags contents” and “discovered bullets.” Polk at ¶ 4. The two then contacted a police officer who detained the student. A search of the bag that the student was carrying at that time revealed a “handgun in a side compartment of that bag.” Polk at ¶ 5.

The student filed a motion to suppress the evidence regarding the bullets and handgun arguing that both searches violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Both the trial and appellate courts found that the second search of the first book bag, the one that uncovered the bullets, was unreasonable because it was conducted solely based on the identity and reputation of the owner which does not constitute reasonable grounds to suspect a violation of school rules.

The Ohio Supreme Court reversed the rulings of both lower courts. First, the Ohio Supreme Court, citing the perceived crises concerning violence and drug use in schools, found that the school district’s “protocol supports the compelling governmental interest in public-school safety by helping to ensure that the contents of the bags are not dangerous and in turn that [its] students remain safe from physical harm.” Polk at ¶ 26. Second, the Ohio Supreme Court found that the student had a “greatly diminished expectation of privacy in his unattended bag.” Polk at ¶ 32. In light of the school district’s “compelling interest in ensuring that unattended book bags do not contain dangerous items and” the student’s diminished expectation of privacy, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that the “protocol requiring searches of unattended book bags to identify their owners and to ensure that their contents are not dangerous is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” Polk at ¶ 32.

The Ohio Supreme Court also addressed the intrusiveness of the search regarding the unattended bag. As stated above, the trial and appellate courts found that the coordinator “was [only] justified in [conducting a cursory search of the * * *] unattended bag to identify its owner and to ensure that its contents were not dangerous.” Polk at ¶ 36. However, the Ohio Supreme Court found that “[a] cursory inspection might easily fail to detect the presence of small but dangerous items.” Polk at ¶ 36. “That determination could not be made—and execution of [the school district’s] reasonable protocol for searching unattended book bags could not be completed—until the bag was emptied.” Polk at ¶ 38.

The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in this case suggests that school districts may be justified in enacting policies and procedures that require personnel to conduct searches of all unattended book bags in order to both identify the owners and to ensure that their contents are not dangerous – and the scope of such searches can extend to emptying the unattended book bags in order to ensure that the contents are not dangerous.

To read this case, please click here.

Authors: Matthew John Markling and Patrick Vrobel

Note: This blog entry does not constitute – nor does it contain – legal advice. Legal jurisprudence is like the always changing Midwestern weather. As a result, this single blog entry cannot substitute for consultation with a McGown & Markling attorney. If legal advice is needed with respect to a specific factual situation, please feel free to contact a McGown & Markling attorney.

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