Student whose cell phone was confiscated and searched has Fourth Amendment claim against school official

Mendoza v. Klein Ind. Sch. Dist., No. 09-3895 (S.D. Tex. Mar. 16, 2011)

Abstract:A federal district court magistrate in Texas has concluded that a student has stated a valid Fourth Amendment claim against an associate principal who searched the contents of her cell phone after confiscating it on suspicion that the student was using the phone in violation of school district policy. As a result, the magistrate recommended that the associate principal’s motion for summary judgment on the claim, based on qualified immunity, be denied. The magistrate did recommend, however, granting the summary judgment motions of the principal and the school district on the Fourth Amendment claim.

While the magistrate agreed that the associate principal’s search was justified at its inception for the purpose of determining if the student had used the phone while in school, she found that there was a legitimate question of fact for a jury as to whether the scope of the search was unreasonable because the associate principal accessed and viewed individual text messages stored on the phone. As a result, she concluded that the question of whether the associate principal was entitled to qualified immunity from the Fourth Amendment claim was dependent on the jury’s determination of whether the school administrator’s search went beyond the justifiable scope of the search.

Facts/Issues: A.M. attended Krimmel Middle School (KMS). Associate Principal Stephanie Langner observed A.M. with a group of students viewing what appeared to be a cell phone. As Langner approached the group, A.M. turned the phone off and put it in her pocket. When Langner demanded A.M. turn over the phone, A.M. protested and Langner claims she denied having used the phone in school. After confiscating the phone, Langner  stated she turned the phone on for the sole purpose of determining if A.M. has used the phone during school hours. After determining that text messages had been sent during school hours, Langner continued her search opening the sent box where she discovered a photo of A.M. nude. When confronted about the photo, A.M. admitted that she had sent the photo to a male friend who had sent her a photo of himself nude. A.M. also admitted that she had shown the photo  of her male friend to another female student.

At that point Langner informed Principal Scott Crowe about the incident and what her search of A.M.’s phone  had turned up. The Klein Independent School District (KISD) police were also notified. A.M. was suspended pending the results of investigations by Crowe and the KISD police. Based on the investigations, Crowe informed A.M.’s mother, Jennifer Mendoza, that A.M. was being transferred to the alternative school for 30 days for violating the student handbook’s prohibition on “incorrigible behavior.” On behalf of KISD’s board, the superintendent upheld Crowe’s decision. A.M.’s mother then filed suit on A.M.’s behalf and in her own right against KISD, Langner and Crowe.

The suit alleged that Langner and Crowe violated A.M.’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches because they accessed the phone. The suit also alleged that KISD was liable for the unconstitutional search because it failed to train the school administrators in regard to student rights and failed to develop policies and procedures that would prevent illegal searches and seizures. The mother also sought a ruling that she, as the subscriber of the cell phone service, has standing to bring a Fourth Amendment claim for unlawful search and seizure of the phone. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. Langner and Crowe asserted that they are entitled to qualified immunity from the search and seizure claim because the plaintiffs cannot show a violation of their clearly established constitutional rights.

Ruling/Rationale: Because the ruling was made by a federal magistrate judge, it is in the form of a recommendation, which must be adopted by a U.S. district court judge before it has the force of law. The magistrate ruled that Langner was not entitled to qualified immunity from the claim that Langner violated A.M.’s Fourth Amendment right to be from unreasonable searches. As a result, she concluded that the plaintiffs had stated a valid claim that could proceed to trial.

After reviewing the  federal caselaw governing searches of students within a school environment, the magistrate determined that it was clear A.M. enjoyed a privacy interest in the contents of her phone. She then analyzed the search within the framework of the “reasonable suspicion” established in New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985). The  T.L.O. standard, which stops short of the probable clause required of law enforcement, has two elements: (1) the search was justified at its inception; and (2) the scope of the search was reasonable.

The magistrate found that Langner, based on her observation of A.M., had a reasonable suspicion that A.M. had displayed and used her cell phone in violation of KISD policy. She, therefore, concluded that Langner had passed T.L.O.’s first hurdle. Langner stumbled on the second hurdle, however, the magistrate found. Langner expressly stated that the purpose of her search was to determine whether A.M. had used the phone during school hours which could be accomplished without accessing the text messages themselves. Based on the parameters of the search, which Langner had set herself, she went beyond the search’s reasonable scope by continuing to search after observing that texts had been sent during school hours.

The magistrate considered two prior federal district court cases, Klump v. Nazareth Area Sch. Dist., 425 F.Supp.2d 622 (E.D. Pa. 2006) and J.W. v. Desoto County Sch. Dist., 2010 WL 4394059, No. 09-155 (N.D. Miss. Nov. 11, 2010),  that addressed whether a search of a student’s cell phone contents violated the Fourth Amendment. She concluded that “a continued search must be reasonable and related to the initial reason to search or to any additional ground uncovered during the initial search.” The search by Langner fell short of that standard because Langner had conceded that she did not need to search the contents of the texts to determine if A.M. had used the phone during school hours. Her continued search of the individual text messages when beyond the reasonable scope of the search.

Having determined that Langner’s actions violated A.M.’s Fourth Amendment rights, the magistrate next considered whether those actions violated clearly established law. She concluded: “in the present case, there is no need for additional discussion of what the clearly established law was at the time of the incident because Langner’s own testimony established she was aware that she did not have the right under law to an unfettered search of a student’s cell phone without reasonable suspicion.” The magistrate, therefore, denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on this claim, finding that it was a question of fact for the jury to determine whether Langner unreasonably accessed the contents of A.M.’s phone or whether Langner’s actions were constitutionally justified under the circumstances.

The magistrate granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the other federal and state claims against the principal and the district, and ruled that A.M.’s mother lack standing to bring a claim for violation of her Fourth Amendment rights based on her being the subscriber to the cell phone service.

Mendoza v. Klein Ind. Sch. Dist., No. 09-3895 (S.D. Tex. Mar. 16, 2011)

[Editor's Note: In J.W., a federal district court in Mississippi ruled that school officials did not violate a student’s Fourth Amendment search and seizure rights when they searched the contents of the student’s cell phone after confiscating it pursuant to school district policy prohibiting the possession and use of cell phones at school. It concluded that the individual officials were entitled to qualified immunity from the student’s Fourth Amendment claim. The district court ruled, however, that the student had stated a valid due process claim against the school for the disciplinary measures against him based on what was found on the phone during the search. A summary of the opinion is available at the first link below.

In September 2010, the Scranton Times-Tribune reported that Tunkhannock Area School District (TASD), through its insurer, agreed to pay $33,000 to settle a suit that stemmed from a ”sexting” incident. The suit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA) on behalf of a high school student identified as N.N. The suit alleged that the school district illegally searched her cell phone, punished her for storing semi-nude pictures of herself on the device, and then referred her case to the Wyoming County district attorney’s office. Under the terms of the settlement, the school district denied any liability or wrongdoing but agreed to pay the student and her lawyers to resolve the dispute. A summary of the article is available at the second link below.]

NSBA Legal Clips archive on J.W. v. Desoto County Sch. Dist.

NSBA Legal Clips archive on settlement of TASD sexting suit

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