In Florida, people have a strong constitutional protection to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures from the police. This protection is stronger or weaker depending on what is being searched. For instance, it is the strongest when it comes to one’s residence and somewhat weaker when it involves a person’s vehicle. In any case, the police cannot just search a person or his/her belongings without a search warrant, consent to search or one of the limited exceptions to those two circumstances.
However, in Florida, a student in school has a more limited protection against searches and seizures of his/her property. In a recent gun case near Jacksonville, Florida, the principal received an anonymous tip that a student had a gun at his public school. Based on this anonymous tip, the principal removed the student from class, took his book bag and searched it. The principal found a gun in the book bag, and the student was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and possession of a firearm on school grounds.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the gun claiming the principal did not have probable cause to search the defendant’s book bag. The motion was denied. Under normal circumstances, an anonymous tip, without more evidence, would practically never be a legitimate reason to search someone or his/her property. If this was at the student’s home, a traffic stop, an encounter on the street or any number of other situations, this search would have been illegal. However, things are different in public school. With a Fourth Amendment issue and the search and seizure laws, the primary issue is whether the search was reasonable under the circumstances. There are several factors that determine what is reasonable. Some of those factors include: the suspect’s expectation of privacy in the property searched, the reliability of the information about the alleged criminal activity and the state’s interest in protecting the public.
An anonymous tip is considered inherently unreliable under the law. If a person is not willing to provide his/her name with the information he/she provides, it is a red flag when assessing its reliability. Anyone can say anything about a person for any number of reasons. However, in this case, the other two factors weighed against the defendant. A student in school does not have the same expectation in his/her property as he/she would at home or outside of school. This is certainly arguable, but the Florida courts are pretty consistent here. The other factor is that the state has a strong interest in avoiding gun violence at schools. It is one thing if we were talking about a minor theft of property, but if guns in school are involved in this day and age, in all likelihood the courts are going to err on the side of allowing the state to takes steps to try and avoid any gun violence.
As a result, the search was allowed, and the defendant was convicted of the gun charges.