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Search of car of non-student in school parking lot was reasonable

State v. Blong Simba Vang, 2021 WI App 28; case activity (including briefs)

The search of Vang’s car, which was parked on school property, was reasonable under  the less stringent standard for searches of students established in New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 324 (1985), even though Vang wasn’t a student at the school.

T.L.O. authorizes the search of a student on school grounds without probable cause or a warrant if the search is reasonable “under all the circumstances.” 469 U.S. at 340-41. Vang wasn’t a student at this school, though before searching his car school personnel had established he had a connection to a student at the school as well as to persons who were in the school without authorization. (¶¶5-11).

So the threshold question—one of first impression in Wisconsin—is whether T.L.O. applies to a non-student’s vehicle parked on school grounds. The answer is “yes.” It is already established that T.L.O. applies to a student’s vehicle parked on school grounds, State v. Schloegel, 2009 WI App 85, ¶¶16-20, 319 Wis. 2d 741, 769 N.W.2d 130, and that the purpose of the relaxed standard in T.L.O. is to maintain safety and order in schools, particularly important in light of the growing incidence of violence and weapons in schools, State v. Angelia D.B., 211 Wis. 2d 140, 149-51, 564 N.W.2d 682 (1997). And at least one other jurisdiction has held that T.L.O. applies to searches of non-student visitors on school grounds. United States v. Aguilera, 287 F.Supp. 2d 1204, 1209 (E.D. Cal. 2003). So:

¶21     …. [T]he duty of school officials to keep students safe applies equally to threats posed by students and non-students. The T.L.O. standard exists in large part to assist school officials in maintaining a safe environment for students. In fact, the Court itself in T.L.O. found that “maintaining security and order in the schools requires a certain degree of flexibility,” and “the school setting requires some easing of the restrictions to which searches by public authorities are ordinarily subject.” T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 340. This standard applies regardless of that person’s status as a student or non-student, at least when the subject of a search is reasonably believed to pose a threat to school safety.

The next question is whether the fact police were ultimately involved in the search of Vang’s car violated T.L.O.’s standard, which does not apply where outside law enforcement officers initiate a search or where school officials act at the behest of law enforcement. 469 U.S. at 152. But our supreme court has held that T.L.O.’s standard “applies to a search conducted on school grounds by a police officer at the request of, and in conjunction with, school authorities.” Angelia D.B., 211 Wis. 2d at 144. The search here falls within the ambit of this rule given the facts, which are involved and so won’t be summarized here. (¶¶5-11, 22-26).

Finally, for a search to be valid under T.L.O. it must be (1) “justified at its inception” and  (2) “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.” 469 U.S. at 341-42. Check on that first requirement, under the facts in this case, and Vang doesn’t contest the second one. (¶¶27-30).


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