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Tip from one student provided reasonable grounds for search of another student

State v. Chase A.T., 2014AP260, District 4, 9/4/14 (1-judge; ineligible for publication); case activity

A student’s tip to an assistant principal that a bathroom “smelled like marijuana smoke” and that a student named Chase walked out of the bathroom immediately before the tipster smelled the smoke provided reasonable grounds for the assistant principal to search Chase. In addition, the search of Chase was not excessive in scope. Thus, his motion to suppress was properly denied.

Public school officials conducting searches of students in the school setting are subject to the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches, but not to the warrant and probable cause requirements. State v. Angelia D.B., 211 Wis. 2d 140, 149, 564 N.W.2d 682 (1997). A search of a student is reasonable if it is “justified at its inception” and is “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.’” Id. at 151 (quoting New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 341 (1985)).

The court concludes the search was justified at its inception, rejecting Chase’s arguments that the assistant principal could not reasonably act in reliance on the tip because the tipster was not reliable, the content of the tip was too vague, and the assistant principal didn’t sufficiently corroborate it. The school’s program for rewarding tips didn’t affect reliability because there’s no evidence the tipster asked for or received a reward, and in any event rewards were given out only after investigation of the tip. (¶¶21-22). And, the tipster was presumably known by the assistant principal, and thus could be held responsible for giving false information. (¶¶21, 23). As to the vagueness of the tip, the allegation of the smell of smoke was admittedly ephemeral, but the identification of “Chase” as the student who left the bathroom was clear; and even if the tipster didn’t report seeing Chase possessing or using marijuana, the inference of marijuana use was reasonable from the facts the tipster did report. (¶¶23-27). Finally, corroboration isn’t required by the cases, and wasn’t necessary in any event given the tipster was known to the assistant principal. (¶¶30-31).

The search—which consisted of having Chase empty his pockets—wasn’t excessive in scope, either.

¶35   …. The test is whether “the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.” T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 342 (emphasis added). Here, the assistant principal had reasonable grounds to suspect that Chase T. possessed a controlled substance or related evidence that could be in one of his pockets, and, thus, ordering Chase T. to empty his pockets was “reasonably related to the objectives of the search.” The search was also not “excessively intrusive,” as it was limited to having Chase T. empty his own pockets and did not involve any physical contact whatsoever, much less especially intrusive contact, with any part of Chase T.’s body, clothing, or belongings by the assistant principal or the liaison officer who was present.

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