Suspicion-less use of drug sniffing dogs in schools held okay by 8th Circuit

A Federal Court of Appeals has just upheld the use of drug sniffing dogs where a student claimed his constitutional rights were violated by his forced separation from his belongings in order that a dog drug sniff could take place.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in favor of a Springfield, Missouri, school district and two of its administrators in a suit alleging that its policy of having students wait outside of a classroom while drug sniffing dogs swept the classroom for illegal narcotics represented an unconstitutional seizure of the student’s possessions.

The suit, Burlinson v. Springfield Public Schools,  was brought about when Springfield police arrived at Central High School during the 2010 school year. They were there to perform a random drug sweep in accordance with school police services’s standard operating procedure 3.4.1. Under that policy, certain randomly selected rooms are chosen to be sniffed by police dogs trained to identify belongings containing illegal drugs. Per the policy, a policeman entered the room of C.M., the child whose parents brought this suit, and informed the students that a random drug sweep was going to occur. The students were instructed to exit the room, leaving their personal belongings in place. C.M. left his backpack and books in the room as instructed and went into the hallway where he could no longer see his belongings.

After all students had exited., a deputy sheriff took the drug dog into C.M.’s classroom. The students were out of the room for approximately five minutes before they were allowed to return. The dog did not alert to any drugs during the search, and the students reentered the classroom. C.M. alleges that it felt as if his bag had been opened, but the zipper was still closed and he offered no proof of this assertion.

These searches took place at the request of Springfield Public Schools (SPS). In 2009,  SPS contacted the Greene County Sheriff’s Department to request random drug sweeps during the 2009-2010 school year. The policy under which this search occurred had been implemented to address a known drug problem.

The crux of the legal case was whether separating the student from his belongings constituted an unconstitutional seizure of his personal belongings. The Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people to be secure in their personas, houses, papers, and effects, and against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Under the Fourth Amendment, a seizure of property must be reasonable, with reasonableness tested based on the context under which it occurred.

In order to determine whether SPS violated C.M.’s Fourth Amendment rights, the court “conducted a fact-specific balancing of the intrusion on the child’s Fourth Amendment rights against the promotion of legitimate government interests.” In ruling on this matter, the court appeared to leave unanswered whether separation from his belongings even constituted a seizure. In reaching its conclusion, the court stated,

Assuming that C.M.’s belongings were seized in this case when the school police officer directed that they be left in the classroom for approximately five minutes while the drug dog survey occurred, we conclude that the seizure was part of a reasonable procedure to maintain the safety and security of students at the school.

In a concurring opinion, one justice argued that this separation does not even rise to the level of a seizure. Stating that a seizure occurs when there is “some meaningful interference with an individual’s possessory interests in that property,” there must be some circumstances under which the interference is merely inconsequential. Given this interpretation, Judge Loken argued that no government seizure took place at all.

Regardless though, under the assumption that a seizure did in fact take place, the seizure here was not unreasonable. The court noted that k-12 public school students do not possess the same expectation of privacy as does the general public. Here, this brief separation from C.M.’s property was for the purpose of avoiding potential embarrassment to students, ensuring that students are not targeted by dogs, and decreasing the potential for potentially hazardous interaction between the police dogs and children.

The court also noted that C.M. freedoms were not “unreasonably curtailed” in that he did not possess full freedom of possession with his property even before the search. Students can be required to not touch their possessions, be required to leave them outside the room, or to leave it in a secured area for school activities.

The court also noted that the government possessed a legitimate interest in keeping drugs out of schools. SPS provided “substantial evidence” to show that there was an illegal drug issue within the district. SPS provided evidence to the court regarding the number of drug related incidents over the last 11 years. C.M. himself testified that he believed that there was and is a drug problem at his school.

The court also quickly dispensed with the parents’ argument that the search was unconstitutional because the seizure was not supported by individualized suspicion, noting that the Supreme Court has rejected the ideas “that all searches or seizures in a school must be supported by individualized suspicion.”