Are school officials, such as teachers or principals, allowed to search students’ belongings while they are on school grounds?

July 9, 2013 in 4th Amendment Rights

Several cases in Illinois suggest that school officials can not freely search a student’s backpack, as this would be an unreasonable search and violation of 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution.  Accordingly, school officials must have reasonable suspicion before being able to search a student. (1) Reasonable suspicion means that the school official must have more than a mere hunch and must identify specific and articulated facts which, when taken with their natural inferences, make intrusion into the students backpack reasonable. (1) Additionally, the school official may conduct as thorough of a search only as required by the immediate circumstances.

Another important aspect to consider is whether the school official is acting under the tip of another. An anonymous tip, suitably corroborated, may provide reasonable suspicion to justify a seizure, so long as the information exhibits some indicia of reliability. (2) In determining whether the substance of a tip, standing alone, may provide reasonable suspicion to justify a search or seizure, courts will consider the detail of the tip, whether the tip established the informant’s basis of knowledge, whether the informant indicated he or she witnessed any criminal activity, and whether the tip accurately predicts future activity of the suspect. (2).

In conclusion, school officials can not freely search students backpacks and belongings while on school grounds unless they have reasonable suspicion to do so, and if acting on the tip of another, the information from the tip must exhibit some indicia of reliability in order to rise to the level of reasonable suspicion and justify the intrusion into a students backpack.

(1) People v. Taylor, 253 Ill.App.3d 768, (1993)
(2) People v. Kline, 355 Ill.App.3d 770, (2005)