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