School officials can search students' cars on school property if they suspect the students of illegal activity, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday in a decision that further broadens administrators' investigatory rights.
Expanding the standard of "reasonable suspicion" to students' vehicles, the court said that "represents the best way to vindicate each student's right to be free from unreasonable searches and to receive a thorough and efficient education."
"Obviously the education process is hampered when drugs and other illegal activities are present," Justice John E. Wallace Jr. wrote for the court. "Indeed, the need for school officials to maintain safety, order, and discipline is necessary whether school officials are addressing concerns inside the school building or outside on the school parking lot."
The lawyer for the teen whose case led to the decision yesterday noted police are held to a higher standard when conducting searches away from school property in the communities they serve.
Another attorney, Avidan Cover, who represented the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in the case, said the decision could "erode the protections of the Constitution" for students, who are less likely to be informed about their rights.
"It would seem that once you enter school grounds, students cede a lot of rights," Cover said.
The case before the court involved an Egg Harbor Township assistant principal, Peter Brandt, who searched the car and locker of Thomas Best in 2006 after being told Best had sold a green pill to a 10th-grade student.
Brandt looked through Best's locker and his Chevy Cavalier, which was parked in the school lot. He found a bottle of pills and marijuana in the car, according to court documents. Best, then 18, subsequently faced charges including possession of Valium, marijuana and steroids. He pleaded guilty to distribution of diazepam on school property and received a three-year sentence.
Best's attorney, Stephen Funk of Atlantic City, said his client, now 21, served three months, entered the state's Intensive Supervision Program and now has a job. Funk said the ruling disappointed him and raises concerns.
"The administrators at schools have a lot more authority to conduct searches of their (students') belongings than would be normally allowed by police," he said.
Boris Moczula, assistant attorney general for New Jersey, said state court rulings allow school officials to look through student backpacks, purses and lockers. But until now, states' courts were silent on whether those officials could search students' cars.
He called the decision "a common sense recognition that these safety concerns don't magically vanish at the schoolhouse walls, but rather extend to everywhere on school grounds that students have access."
The issue of checking students' property in New Jersey goes back at least 25 years to when the high court, then led by Chief Justice Robert N. Wilentz, said certain searches were reasonable but that school officials had overstepped their bounds in two cases -- one involving a student's purse and the other a locker.
The U.S. Supreme Court took up the matter and adopted a stronger position, saying school officials needed "reasonable suspicion" and not the usual "probable cause" and warrant required to search someone.
In the decades since the courts have decided these cases, "there hasn't been any real backlash that we've seen in New Jersey schools," said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, which has participated in several cases regarding student searches on school property.News by SoulRiser on February 17, 2010 @ 10:36 PM