Washington Supreme Court rules that school resource officer’s search of student’s locked backpack violated rights against unlawful search and seizure

State of Washington v. Meneese, No. 86203-6 (Wash. Aug. 2, 2012) (majority opinion); (dissenting opinion)

Abstract: In a 7-2 split, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington has ruled that a school resource officer (SRO), who is a member of a local police department, violated a student’s right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure under the federal and state constitutions when he searched the student’s locked backpack after arresting the student and handcuffing him. The court’s majority concluded that the “school search” exception did not apply to the SRO’s search.

The majority reversed the intermediate appellate court’s decision upholding the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress the air pistol discovered during the search. The majority concluded that the “school search” exception to the requirement for a warrant did not apply, because at the time the SRO executed the backpack search, he was acting as a police officer, and not a school official.

Facts/Issues: Michael Fry, a fully commissioned, uniformed, law enforcement officer, has been employed by the Bellevue Police Department for over 15 years, and been assigned to Robinswood High School (RHS) as the SRO since the late 1990s. As an SRO, Fry was to “creat[e] and maintain[] a safe, secure, and orderly learning environment for students, teachers, and staff through prevention and intervention techniques.” The police department and the school district formalized the arrangement between them, with the district agreeing to pay the police department $90,000 per year for the six officers, including Fry, assigned to district schools.

In February 2009, Fry came into contact with Jamar Meneese, an RHS student, during a routine check of the boys’ restroom, when Fry saw Meneese standing at the sink holding a bag of marijuana in one hand and a medicine vial in the other. Fry confiscated the marijuana and escorted Meneese along with his backpack to the Dean of Students’ office.

The dean took a passive role, taking no disciplinary action. Instead, Fry placed Meneese under arrest and requested a patrol unit to pick Meneese up for booking at the police station. While waiting on backup, Fry became suspicious that Meneese’s backpack might contain additional contraband because it had a padlock on the handles. Fry was unable to successfully search the locked backpack, and Meneese claimed he had left the key to the lock at home.

Fry then handcuffed Meneese and searched him for the key. After obtaining the key, Fry searched the backpack and found an air pistol (BB gun). Fry then read Meneese his Miranda rights. Meneese was charged with unlawfully carrying a dangerous weapon at school and possession of a controlled substance.

During the trial, Meneese filed a motion to suppress the air pistol found during the search. The motion was denied and he was convicted. He appealed, contesting the lawfulness of the search. The state appellate court affirmed, finding that the “school search” exception applied, thus the search was constitutional. Meneese then sought review by the Washington State Supreme Court.

Ruling/Rationale: The Washington State Supreme Court reversed the appellate court. The Court’s majority concluded that “given the overwhelming indicia of police action, the ‘school search’ exception does not apply, a warrant supported by probable cause was required, and the weapon should be suppressed.”

The majority explained that the “school search” exception, based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 341 (1985), “allows school officials to search students without a warrant when the official has reasonable suspicion the search will produce evidence of a violation of law or school policy.” The issue presented before the Court was whether the “school search” exception applied to the SRO’s search of Meneese’s locked backpack.

Meneese claimed that the air pistol should be suppressed because Fry lacked the necessary warrant to search his locked backpack. Noting that the “school search” exception applies under both state and federal law, the majority pointed out that it allows a school official to conduct a search of a student’s person provided the official has reasonable suspicion. The majority explained that a lower standard is applied because school officials’ primary duty is to maintain order and discipline at school, but it is equally well-settled that the “school search” exception does not apply to law enforcement officers acting on their own.

Fry had no authority to administer school discipline, suspensions, or expulsions, dressed in a standard-issue police uniform, and drove a marked police vehicle to and from the school. The majority noted that the focus of the investigation was no longer informal school discipline, an underlying purpose behind the “school search” exception. The majority stressed that Fry is a uniformed police officer who “respond[s] to, and address[es], incidents occurring on school grounds.” It also pointed out that “his role as SRO does not exempt him from other police duties as he can still be called upon to answer police matters unrelated to the school.”

In addition, the majority found the fact that Fry arrested and handcuffed Meneese before conducting the search provided further proof that he was acting as a police officer, not a school official. It concluded that unlike school officials, Fry’s primary duties were those of a law enforcement officer, whose primary duty is to discover and prevent crime. The majority agreed with Meneese that the “school search” exception did not apply to Fry’s search of the backpack, because “in light of the overwhelming indicia of police action, Fry was a law enforcement officer when he searched Meneese’s backpack.”

While acknowledging that a number of other states consider SROs to be school officials, the majority pointed out that those “other jurisdictions rely on state-specific precedent that is simply inapplicable here.” It also noted that to the extent those other state cases rely on the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, Washington state case law holds that the state constitution’s search and seizure provision “provides greater protection to an individual’s right of privacy than … the Fourth Amendment.” Lastly, the majority found that those other cases are distinguishable because they involve pre-arrest searches. Fry’s search did not further any education-related goals as he had already arrested and handcuffed Meneese.

The dissent stated that it “would hold that this ‘school search exception’ applies whether a search of a student on school grounds is carried out by a school resource officer (SRO) or another school official, so long as it is related to school policy and not merely a subterfuge for unrelated law enforcement activities.” The dissent concluded that in rejecting this view, “the majority departs from persuasive precedent, the record on review, and common sense.”

Unlike the majority, the dissent concluded that the state constitution’s search and seizure provision provided no greater protections than the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. It stated: “Instead, the analysis should begin with the recognition that under both article I, section 7 and the Fourth Amendment, the reasonable suspicion standard applies to searches ‘carried out by school authorities acting alone and on their own authority.’”

The dissent also found the majority’s analysis flawed “because it posits that one must be either a law enforcement officer or a school official for purposes of the school search exception.” In addition, it found the majority’s reliance on the timing of the search, i.e., after Fry had arrested Meneese, was of no significance in applying the “school search” exception “because the reasons the school search exception exists need not independently justify each school search on a case-by-case basis,” instead the “exception turns on the ‘special environment’ of a school.”

State of Washington v. Meneese, No. 86203-6 (Wash. Aug. 2, 2012) (majority opinion); (dissenting opinion)

[Editor's Note: In June 2011, Legal Clips summarized the opinion of the state appellate court in Meneese, which upheld Fry's warrantless search of the backpack. It concluded that the SRO was acting as a school official rather than a law enforcement official, and therefore needed only reasonable suspicion, not probable cause, to conduct the search. The appellate court found that the SRO’s search, which turned up the air pistol, satisfied the reasonable suspicion standard for searches conducted by school officials.]

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