A recent Supreme Court ruling regarding cell phone searches could have important implications for students in public schools who find their cell phone the subject of a search by school officials.
The case, Riley v. California, stemmed from an incident in which a man was pulled over by a police officer and then further convicted of a disassociated gang-related shooting as a result of information found on his cell phone. The judge’s expansive view of cell phone privacy in the ruling will impact all cell phone searches, including those at school.
As more students begin to carry a cell phone, they may start to wonder when a school official can search their phone as opposed to when they can search another physical space such as a purse or backpack.
For example, if a student is caught selling marijuana at school, does it mean an administrator has the right to search a student’s phone? How about a student simply getting caught checking his phone in class? Although students are protected by the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of property, many students do not know what that privacy entails.
The Riley ruling makes clear it is more intrusive to search a cell phone than another physical space such as a backpack or purse because a cell phone contains limitless amounts of personal information beyond what a person could physically carry. But what exactly constitutes a “reasonable” search? Administrators must have a feeling known as “reasonable suspicion,” which has a little more gray area than a police officer has while conducting a search.
The official definition of this suspicion is that it must be “reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not be excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction,” said Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center, in a related cell phone article on the SPLC’s website. This means that the accusing party has investigated and thinks that the student under scrutiny has broken a school rule or law. However, the allegation must not be based on any bias toward age, gender or race.
For example, administrators cannot simply confiscate a student’s phone and search it for their own amusement nor for a previous record that a student has acquired. A school official cannot search a cell phone without a student’s permission unless the administrators can substantiate an imminent threat of danger to the public or have substantial grounds to believe the phone contains evidence of illegal behavior that is punishable by the school.
Not only do most students not know their rights, but frequently school administrators do not know what is lawfully correct either.
Cases which include weapons, drugs, or other immediate threats to campus are seen by administrators as instances where the suspect in question would in no doubt be called in for questioning. However, some cases validate administrators’ ability to conduct searches, while others do not.
In an email, LoMonte outlined specific scenarios to help define the parameters under which a student’s phone could be searched.
“What if an accusation is a very minor rule violation like tardiness? Would violating any rule, even tardiness, be considered justification to look at what’s in a student’s cell phone?” LoMonte asked.
Vice Principal Sara Baysinger responded to LoMonte’s hypothetical scenario saying that in such a case where a screenshot was brought to administrators showing evidence of a student being truant then that could, in fact, lead to the student being called up and receiving punishment accordingly.
However, Baysinger said school officials judge each instance on a case-by-case basis, acknowledging that there is no official or district policy that specifically addresses cell phone searches.
“The levels of severities between cases make it hard for there to be a policy,” Baysinger said. “All of the ‘for instances’ would lead the policy to become too broad.”
Baysinger recalled a case in which a student’s cell phone was confiscated for simply being out during school hours. It was brought to the office and a notification on the phone appeared in the lock screen. Baysinger saw the notification and had to take immediate action for what she saw was an off campus safety concern. She then notified law enforcement.
“I had to address it,” Baysinger said. “It would go against my duty to ignore what I saw.”
A common case that Baysinger said she frequently encounters is when students come to administrators to complain about feeling uncomfortable when students in the P.E. locker rooms take pictures while students are changing. Whether the cases are accidental or on purpose, Baysinger questions the students and asks to see the pictures on their phone in case the student appears in the background.
In each case, Baysinger says she must weigh a student’s right to privacy against the larger harm done. If administrators are sometimes hazy about student’s rights, so are the students themselves.
Junior Maya Gonzales shared a story of how she was called into the office last spring by the School Resource Officer and questioned about information that would only have been known if someone had access to her accounts or was involved in her private group conversation.
Gonzales received tweets of a possible shooting and then texted her friends to “Be safe” in a group chat. The next day, she was called to the office where the S.R.O. said, “ I understand you know about a possible shooting” – and referenced a personal text she had made on her phone. Gonzales later admitted she felt somewhat violated and did not know she could refuse to submit her phone for inspection.
With cell phone privacy cases being fairly new, both students and school officials can expect more court rulings that will further define what rights are protected in cell phone searches. The Riley incident will surely be an important beginning for all cell phone searches, including students’ rights for cell phones at school.