Posted On: November 26, 2008

New Jersey Superior Court Finds Standard of Reasonable Suspicion Necessary to Search Student's Vehicle

The Superior Court of New Jersey recently upheld a conviction of a high school student for possession of a controlled dangerous substance, distribution of a controlled dangerous substance, and distribution within 1,000 feet of a school. The evidence used to convict the defendant was obtained through a “reasonable suspicion” search of the student’s vehicle by the school’s assistant principal.

On May 15, 2006, Egg Harbor Township High School officials were notified by the school nurse of a student whom she suspected to be under the influence of a controlled substance. Upon questioning, the student told school officials that he had purchased a green pill from the defendant earlier that morning. Defendant was called into the vice-principal’s office for questioning and was subsequently searched, based on the other student’s confession. Upon search, a number of white pills were found which the defendant described as a nutritional supplement. The defendant’s locker was then searched which produced no further evidence. The vice-principal, knowing that the defendant had driven to school and had his vehicle on campus, instructed the defendant to allow a search of his car. The High School’s policy forbade students to drive their vehicles to school unless special permission was granted; the policy was so strict that any student caught driving to school without permission would be issued an alternative education placement and any passenger would be issued a central detention. A search of the vehicle produced what the vice-principal believed to be a number of controlled substances, including marijuana. Police were notified and the defendant was subsequently arrested and charged.

The defendant was convicted on charges of possession and distribution within a school zone, and appealed. On appeal, the defendant raised the legality of the search of his vehicle, in that the reasonable suspicion standard which applies while in school, does not apply to a search of his vehicle; rather probable cause would be needed to conduct such a search. Although the United States Constitution prohibits law enforcement from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures, which has led both state and federal courts to apply the standard of probable cause, school students are subject to search without probable cause or warrant. In the interest of student and faculty safety, as well as a school official’s role as disciplinarian, the standard of reasonable suspicion has been held to apply to searches of students and their possessions on campus. The United States Supreme Court has provided a two-pronged inquiry for determining the legality of a search on school grounds: Whether the action was justified at its inception; and whether the search as actually conducted was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the initial interference.

In this case, the Court held that a student’s vehicle has the potential to be used a storage for contraband brought onto campus, and because of the school district’s policy about student vehicles, was subject to the same reasonable suspicion standard as a student’s locker. The Court did not rule on whether the same standard would apply to a student’s vehicle parked on the street but not technically on school grounds.

Drug cases, particularly those involving students are serious matters. An experienced criminal defense attorney can assist you with these often complicated matters. For a confidential consultation regarding a Pennsylvania or New Jersey criminal matter, contact the Law Offices of Marc Neff or email Marc@nefflawoffices.com

Posted On: November 4, 2008

Harsher Penalties for Manufacturing a Controlled Substance than Simply Possessing the Same Quantity, Upheld By Pennsylvania Superior Court

Lancaster County Police were responding to a noise complaint when they found the defendant, Shawn Van Aulen, outside of his apartment with a bag of marijuana in his hand. The officers conducted a search of the defendant, finding a glass smoking device and a marijuana grinding device as well. Following the search, the officers requested, and were granted, permission to enter the apartment for the purpose of discussing the noise complaint with the remaining occupants. Upon entering the apartment, the officers found six or seven people in the living room. The officers were permitted to search the remainder of the apartment for any additional people present; the officers found two females in the defendant’s bedroom. In the closet of Van Aulen’s bedroom, the officers saw four marijuana plants, lights, and other paraphernalia used to grow marijuana. Van Aulen was arrested and charged with manufacture of marijuana, possession of marijuana, and possession of paraphernalia. He was convicted in a non-jury trial and sentenced to five-years of probation. Van Aulen then appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court on the issue of whether the legislature intended to include growing a small number of marijuana plants for personal use under the definition of “manufacture”.

Van Aulen relied on what he believed to be an inconsistent treatment of the offenses of possession of a small amount of marijuana versus manufacturing the same amount; possession of the amount Van Aulen was found to have would constitute a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of 30 days in jail and/or a $500 fine. Manufacturing the same amount of marijuana is considered a felony, punishable by up-to five-years of imprisonment and/or fines of $15,000. The Court used the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device, and Cosmetic Act (“CSDDCA”) to interpret the legislature’s meaning of “manufacture” under the law. The Act criminalizes “the production, preparation, propagation, compounding, conversion, or processing of a controlled substance”, and further defines “production” as “manufacturing, planting, cultivation, growing, or harvesting of a controlled substance”. The Act makes no reference to amount or quantity, or distinctions between controlled substances. The Court noted it was bound to follow a strict interpretation of the law. Further, the Court cited Commonwealth v. Burnsworth, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case which ruled harsher penalties for manufacturing a controlled substance than simply possessing the substance were merited because it is a rational deterrent to increased production and sale of drugs. Based on the Court’s findings, the Court ruled that growing even a small amount of marijuana for personal consumption constitutes “manufacture” under the CSDDCA, meriting the harsher penalties. Van Aulen’s sentence was upheld.

Drug offenses are serious matters which involve serious penalties. If you have been charged with a drug offense, there are many defenses which may be available, including challenging the constitutionality of a police search. Contact a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer immediately, so that your situation can be assessed and a defense to your charges can be developed.