In a recent possession of marijuana case in Florida, the criminal charges against a juvenile were dropped because the juvenile was searched illegally by the police officer. The police officer found the juvenile near a high school during school hours. He approached the juvenile and determined that he was supposed to be in school at the time. A police officer does have a right to detain a juvenile if he has reason to believe that the juvenile is skipping school. The purpose of the detention is to return the juvenile to the school.
In this case, the police officer detained the juvenile, searched her pockets and found marijuana. Normally, a police officer is allowed to search someone who has been arrested to make sure the suspect does not have a weapon and presents no risk to the police officer’s safety. However, truancy, i.e. skipping school, is not a crime so this juvenile was not arrested. As a result, the police officer could not use the search incident to arrest basis to search the juvenile. If the officer has a right to detain someone, as he did here, he/she can pat that person down for weapons to ensure officer safety, but the officer chose not to do that and went straight into a search instead.
Alternatively, if the police officer had some reason to believe that the juvenile was in possession of marijuana or other illegal drug, he may have been permitted to search the juvenile. If the officer had patted the juvenile down first and felt something that seemed to be drugs or a weapon, then a search would likely have been authorized. At the hearing on the motion to suppress the marijuana, the police officer testified that he searched the juvenile for officer safety because he was about to place him in his patrol car to take him back to school. But since no arrest was made, this was not a valid basis to search the juvenile under the Fourth Amendment.
In order for a police officer to conduct a valid search of a person, the police officer must establish a legal basis. Since neither of the two possible bases for a valid search applied (search incident to an arrest or specific evidence of illegal drugs), the search was illegal, and the marijuana was thrown out.