In a unanimous decision issued yesterday, the Supreme Court of Ohio upheld the constitutionality of a school district’s searches of a student’s bags. In State v. Polk, the court concluded that schools have a compelling interest in protecting students from harm and it is reasonable for school personnel to conduct a search of a student’s book bag to determine the bag’s ownership and whether there is anything dangerous in the bag.

OSBA’s Legal Assistance Fund (LAF), together with the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, Ohio Association of School Business Officials, Ohio Association of Secondary School Administrators, Ohio Federation of Teachers and Ohio Education Association, provided an amici curiae brief on State v. Polk. The brief supported the school district’s actions and explained the importance of giving districts the ability to adopt reasonable policies designed to provide a safe and healthy learning environment. 

In February 2013, a school bus driver with Columbus Public Schools approached the school’s safety and security resource coordinator, Robert Lindsey, at Whetstone High School with a book bag that had been left on the bus. Lindsey, following an unwritten protocol at the school, searched the unattended bag to determine its owner and ensure that the contents were not dangerous.  He found school materials in the bag and determined that it belonged to student Joshua Polk.

Lindsey recognized Polk’s name as someone who was rumored to be in a gang and took the bag to Whetstone’s principal.  Upon emptying the bag, Lindsey and the principal discovered it had contained bullets.  Following this discovery, the principal alerted a police officer.  After the three found Polk, the police officer placed Polk in a hold and instructed Lindsey to search the bag that he had been carrying. Lindsey found a handgun in the bag. 

Polk was charged with one count of possession of a deadly weapon or dangerous ordnance in a school-safety zone. At the trial court level, the court granted Polk’s motion to suppress the bullets and the handgun.  The court concluded that the second search of the bag found on the bus violated the Fourth Amendment because it was “conducted solely based on the identity and reputation of the owner,” rather than on reasonable grounds for suspecting a violation of law or school rules.  It also suppressed the handgun as fruit of the poisonous tree.  The appeals court agreed with the trial court’s decision.

The supreme court overturned the lower courts’ decisions.  In an opinion written by Justice Sharon L. Kennedy, the court concluded that both searches of Polk’s unattended book bag were limited to identifying the bag’s owner and ensuring that its contents were not dangerous. The court stated that there was no credible evidence to show that Lindsey’s first search of the unattended bag was sufficient to ensure that the bag contained no dangerous items. 

The court also concluded that the student’s expectation of privacy regarding the book bag left on the bus was diminished because it would be considered lost. A person who finds a lost item might have to open it and look inside to determine who owns it.  In addition, the court noted prior rulings allowing law enforcement officials to search closed containers without a warrant to ensure that they are not dangerous. 

The court concluded: “In light of [the school’s] compelling interest in ensuring that unattended book bags do not contain dangerous items and of Polk’s greatly diminished expectation of privacy in his unattended bag, we conclude that [the school’s] protocol requiring searches of unattended book bags to identify their owners and to ensure that their contents are not dangerous is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

State v. Polk represents another example of LAF participating in litigation of statewide significance involving member boards of education. LAF is a trust fund established to provide supportive assistance to boards of education in cases or controversies of statewide significance primarily at the appellate level. With many school districts participating, the collective power of the small contributions is quite significant.  OSBA’s website has more information about LAF and how it can assist your district, including applications for membership and assistance

Posted by Jennifer A. Hardin on 5/12/2017