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Florida Criminal Case Illustrates Illegal Drug Search of Student at School

A recent Florida criminal case involving the search of a student in whose wallet marijuana was found illustrates the standard for properly searching a student for drugs at school. According to the Florida appellate court, the search of the student was found to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution because the teacher did not have reasonable suspicion to believe that the student was in possession of the marijuana or other drugs.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. In schools, the standard for searching a student is more liberal, i.e. a teacher or school official can search a student if he or she has a “reasonable suspicion” that the student is in possession of marijuana, cocaine or any other illegal drug. That reasonable suspicion cannot just be a hunch or intuition. A search of the student for illegal drugs must be based upon specific and articulable facts that reasonably warrant the search. In other words, the teacher or school official must be able to point to actual facts and logical inferences that reasonably led him or her to believe that the student was in possession of illegal drugs before the student was searched.

In this recent Florida criminal case, a student walked into a classroom where he did not belong. The teacher asked the unauthorized student to leave and escorted him out of the classroom. When the teacher walked back into the classroom, she smelled an odor of marijuana for the first time. She then took the student to the principal’s office where his wallet was searched. A bag of marijuana was found inside.

The Florida appellate court found that there was not a sufficient legal basis to search the student for marijuana. While the teacher did smell marijuana, she could not articulate any facts that reasonably led her to believe that the smell of marijuana was coming from that student, as opposed to another student or other sources. As a result, the search of the student was held to be illegal, and the marijuana could not be used against the student in court. Of course, the student was still subject to punishment from the school for having marijuana in school, but he was not subject to prosecution for the drug crime of possession of marijuana because the teacher’s search did not meet the reasonable suspicion standard.