Appeal court: Book-bag search did not violate student’s constitutional rights

12/26/2013 6:38 PM

12/28/2013 9:00 PM

The attorneys for a Miami Northwestern Senior High School student who brought a loaded gun to school in 2011 argued that school administrators had violated his constitutional rights when they unreasonably searched his backpack.

The attorneys fought to keep the weapon from being used as evidence in the case.

But in an opinion released Thursday, a state appeals court ruled the search was reasonable.

“Considering the totality of the circumstances, the conclusion appears inescapable that a reasonable guardian and tutor of a group of schoolchildren might well conduct a search of the student’s backpack to address such a substantial threat to the children assembled at school,” wrote Judge Thomas Logue, of the Third District Court of Appeal.

The three-judge panel was divided.

In her dissent, Judge Linda Wells wrote that school administrators lacked legal grounds to conduct the search, in part because they were acting on an anonymous tip.

“In this case, no reasonable suspicion existed to support the warrantless search of [the teenager’s] backpack,” Wells wrote. “Standing alone, the uncorroborated, unenhanced anonymous tip received by the school in this case was legally insufficient to satisfy that standard.”

The case dates back to Oct. 12, 2011, when the Miami-Dade County Police Department’s Gun Bounty Program received an anonymous tip about a Northwestern student who allegedly had a gun.

Court documents identify the teenager only by his initials, “K.P.”

After the tip came in, a Miami-Dade schools police officer reached out to the assistant principal. The assistant principal and two security guards went to the student’s classroom, took his backpack and ushered him to the school administrative offices.

The school resource officer opened the backpack. Inside was a loaded .380-caliber Lorcin semi-automatic handgun, according to court records.

The student was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, possession of a firearm on school grounds and possession of a firearm by a minor.

In trial court, his attorneys said the gun should not be used as evidence. The judge denied the request.

The lower court withheld adjudication, but ordered the teen to serve 15 days in secure detention and one year of probation.

Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez, whose office represented the teenager, could not be reached for comment Thursday, nor could the State Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case.

On Thursday, the appeals court affirmed the lower court’s decision about using the gun as evidence.

In the majority opinion, Logue wrote that students have a decreased expectation of privacy in schools. He also made reference to recent school shootings, and said safeguarding students in schools was a top national priority.

“In light of this grim development, no reasonable person would contest that the government’s interest in protecting students from gun violence is entitled to substantial weight when deciding whether a particular search at a school is reasonable under all of the circumstances,” Logue wrote.

Chief Judge Frank Shepherd joined in the opinion.

But Wells had a different take. She said there would have been enough evidence to remove the student from the classroom, question him and examine the exterior of his backpack.

“Had such actions been taken and resulted in information or observations which would reasonably support a determination that [the student] either had been or was violating the law or school rules, then a search of [his] backpack would have been justified from its inception,” Wells wrote. “Because none of this took place before [the student’s] backpack was searched, the warrantless search of [the student’s] backpack was not reasonable under the circumstances.”

Reached late Thursday, a spokesman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, Whitney Ray, said the office was reviewing the court’s ruling.

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