Student Search and Seizure Law
Iowa Code chapter 808A is the Iowa Student Search Law. Not every state has such a law. It places significant restrictions on the search of a student by a school employee.
It is unlawful in Iowa for a public or nonpublic school official (defined as a licensed employee and unlicensed employees "employed for security or supervision purposes") to conduct a random, suspicionless search of any student or group of students. Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the searching of students who were drug tested (which is a search) for no other reason than they participated in extracurricular activities. But those rulings - Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton and Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls - are permissive, not mandatory. More importantly, they permit this limited type of suspicionless search only where state law does not prohibit it. Chapter 808A prohibits all suspicionless searches.
So, what is allowed? Schools may still search a student if both of the following are true:
- The school official has reasonable grounds to believe that the search will produce evidence of a violation of a school policy or other law. No fishing expeditions allowed. Before a search is conducted, a school official must be able to state what "fruit" s/he believes the search will yield, and why the student to be searched is targeted.
- After the determination has been made that reasonable grounds exist to conduct a search, the manner of conducting the search must be reasonably related to the objectives of the search. This, in turn, is based on factors that include, but are not limited to, the age of the student, the gender of the student, the nature of the suspected violation.
Under NO circumstances may any of the following occur:
- A strip search of a student by a school official
- A body cavity search of a student by a school official
- The use of a drug sniffing dog or other animal to search a student's body
- The search of any student by a school official of a different gender from the student
Protected student area, lockers, student vehicles
Chapter 808A defines "protected student area" as a student's body, the clothing worn or carried by a student, the student's "pocketbook, briefcase, duffel bag, bookbag, backpack, knapsack, or any other container" that holds personal belongings and is in the "possession or immediate proximity of the student." The protected student area is to be treated the same as the student's person. A school official may not conduct a search of a protected student area that does not meet the basic rule.
The rule about locker and desk searches is not straightforward. While chapter 808A states that students have no expectation of privacy with respect to lockers and desks, the Iowa Supreme Court has stated to the contrary. In a case from Muscatine High School (State v. Jones, 666 N.W.2d 142), the Court stated that a student's locker is like a student's purse (which is protected) in that the locker "presents a similar island of privacy in an otherwise public school." Therefore, the Court concluded, students do have a "measure of privacy" in the contents of their lockers. Note that the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the search at Muscatine H.S. (which yielded marijuana from student Jones' locker). But this appears to be true only because the District announced the "locker cleanout" (an annual event occurring prior to the winter break) several days in advance and urged that students be present for the search of their lockers. There is a genuine issue whether a search of all lockers or desks without prior notice would withstand scrutiny in court. School officials are strongly advised to discuss this with their school's attorneys before embarking upon such a search.
Vehicles driven by students and parked in school-provided parking lots are not addressed in chapter 808A. Vehicles are neither included in the definition of protected student area nor discussed as an exception to the student search rule. The courts in Iowa have consistently held that the interior of one's vehicle is a place where one has a legitimate expectation of privacy. Iowa courts have also held that a dog sniff of the exterior of a vehicle is not a search. Before sending the drug dogs into the school parking lot on a fishing expedition, consult your school attorney.
Dos and Don'ts
(The following examples are created from fiction. The most likely outcomes herein are NOT legal advice to the SLU reader.)
MOST LIKELY OK
Susie is seen engaging in furtive behavior in the school parking lot consistent with selling drugs and has been known to "supply" her peers with drugs in the past. In this case, school officials most likely have reasonable grounds to search the protected student area.
Students report that Steve is selling drugs from his locker. If school officials believe these reports are credible, they may bring in a drug dog to see if it alerts on Steve's locker. Steve could also be asked to empty his pockets, and a male school official could do a pat down of Steve's person.
The students are gathered in the school auditorium for a school assembly, the subject of which are local drug enforcement agents who have brought in their drug dog. On his way to the auditorium, the dog alerts on a student locker. School officials open the locker and find marijuana. (The dog and his handler were walking the most direct route from the entrance of the school to the auditorium; they just happened to go by this particular locker.) Under the above circumstances, the alert by the dog (unless the dog had a history of false alerts) probably gives school officials reasonable grounds to search the locker.
A student reports that $5.00 was stolen from her gym locker during P.E. and that two other girls - Julie and Patty - were alone in the locker room during the time the money went missing. While there are reasonable grounds to search Julie and Patty, remember that any search must be reasonable in scope and must be reasonably related to the purpose of the search. Here, with the allegation of $5.00 missing, the scope of any search is most reasonably limited to asking Julie and Patty to empty their pockets.
The school's teacher librarian reports that a large atlas is missing from the media center. The atlas is too large to be concealed on a person. The teacher librarian reports that Robbie has been expressing interest in the atlas in recent days and was seen in the area where the atlas was last seen. There are reasonable grounds to search Robbie's locker and his backpack, but - given the size of the atlas - NOT his person. Pursuant to chapter 808A, Robbie should be informed of the search "either prior to or as soon as is reasonably practicable after the search is conducted."
Jimmy shows signs of drug usage...slipping grades, losing weight, irritability. One of his teachers brings him to the office because he is presently acting "high" in class and the teacher knows that the school recently bought a urinalysis kit. While a trained male school official could use the UA kit because reasonable grounds exist to believe that Jimmy is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the school official should proceed with extreme caution. Chain of custody issues, other procedural issues, and issues of test reliability abound. If Jimmy is medically in distress, call 911 and have the medical experts conduct any testing (as well as treat the young man). If he is not in distress, think about calling law enforcement.
School officials discover empty beer cans under the student section of the football stadium after the first couple of home football games. In addition, there have been reliable reports of underage drinking occurring in the student section during the games. The school buys a breathalyzer and plans to test only those students who have been observed drinking or of whom there are other reasonable and articulable grounds to believe have been drinking (smell of beer/unsteady gait/slurred speech). This is permissible, but the same reliability and procedural concerns exist as with any drug/alcohol testing. Why not let the experts (law enforcement) handle the testing?
MOST LIKELY NOT OK
Community concern about teenage and adolescent illegal drug usage is heightened following the drug-induced suicide of a local youth. This does not present reasonable grounds to conduct a search for drugs. Whether school officials could pre-announce a locker and/or desk search and then conduct the same should be discussed with the school's attorney.
Students report that Steve is selling drugs from his locker. If school officials believe these reports are credible, they may bring in a drug dog to see if it alerts on Steve's locker, BUT NOT to sniff Steve's person or his protected student area. Steve could also be asked to empty his pockets, and a male school official could do a pat down of Steve's person.
Same students are gathered in the school auditorium for a school assembly to be presented by local drug enforcement agents and their drug dog. School officials ask that the dog be led to the auditorium via the girls' locker room for no other reason than to "see if the dog finds anything." With this added twist, if the dog does alert on a locker in the girls' locker room, any subsequent search may be tainted because there was no articulable probable cause to have the dog sniff a specified locker.
A teacher reports that $50.00 was stolen from his desk but he has no idea when the theft occurred. His room is unlocked when he is not in the room, and he has no reasonable suspicion that any specific student committed the theft. There are no reasonable grounds to order all students in the building to empty their pockets. There are certainly no reasonable grounds to pat down any student.
A soccer goalpost comes up missing. It's too large to be concealed on a person, in a backpack, in a desk, in a locker, or even in a car. Clearly, such an object cannot justify a search of a protected student area or a desk or locker. [Assuming it would fit in a pickup bed, school officials could walk through the school's parking lot because such an object would be in "plain view" (i.e., not require a search of a vehicle's interior).]
Scott is usually an A/B student, but lately his grades have slipped and he has been snappish with peers and staff. Based on those generalities and nothing more, one of Scott's teachers brings him to the office and requests that a urinalysis be performed. It's not likely that there are reasonable grounds to search Scott, but it would be wise to have a counselor visit with him.
School officials discover empty beer cans under the student section of the football stadium after the first couple of home football games. In addition, there have been reliable reports of underage drinking occurring in the student section during the games. The school buys a breathalyzer and plans to test each student as s/he files out of the stadium. This "dragnet" approach is not permitted. Only those students of whom there are reasonable and articulable grounds to believe have been drinking may be subjected to the breathalyzer, which is a "search."
Student Searches and Drug Testing Guidance Document