In the Interest of C.C-S.
2021 COA 127. No. 19CA0913. Safe2Tell—Fourth Amendment—Search and Seizure—Unreasonable Detention—Exclusionary Rule—Delinquency.
October 21, 2021
A school security officer received a tip through the Safe2Tell program that high school student C.C-S. had been seen in a Snapchat video shooting a firearm out of a car window. At the time of the tip the Snapchat video was a month old and therefore unviewable. The school dean told the security officer that C.C-S. had a history of bringing things to school that he shouldn’t, such as drugs.
The security officer brought another security officer and C.C-S. into a closed room. They told C.C-S. about the tip and said they were going to search his backpack. C.C-S. refused to consent to the search and after further discussion attempted to leave. The officers did not let him leave, and after they asked C.C-S. whether he was refusing to allow the search because he had drugs in his backpack, C.C-S. confessed that he had drugs in his backpack and handed the backpack to the officers. They searched the backpack and found a plastic bag of marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia. The People charged C.C-S. in a delinquency petition with underage possession of marijuana and possession with intent to distribute.
C.C-S. moved to suppress the marijuana and paraphernalia on grounds that they were discovered during an unconstitutional detention of his person and search and seizure of his backpack. The juvenile court denied the motion, and following a bench trial, it found C.C-S. guilty of both charges and adjudicated him delinquent.
On appeal, C.C-S. contended that the court erred by denying his motion to suppress because the marijuana and paraphernalia were discovered during an unreasonable search and seizure of his backpack, which was conducted after an initial, illegal seizure of his person. He maintained that the anonymous Safe2Tell tip was stale, and the dean’s comment did not furnish sufficient grounds to justify the backpack search. A school search is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment if it is justified at its inception and is “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.” To justify a search at its inception, a school officer must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting legal wrongdoing. Reasonable suspicion for a search must be based on specific and articulable facts known to the officer and the rational inferences drawn from those facts. An anonymous and otherwise unreliable tip may furnish reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify a search if verified by enough independent corroborating evidence of a violation of the law or school rules.
The Safe2Tell program allows students, parents, and staff members within a school district to submit anonymous tips about potential school safety concerns. However, the anonymity of tips received by the Safe2Tell program does not ensure, without more, that such tips will provide reasonable suspicion as required by the Fourth Amendment. Here, the Safe2Tell tip was stale and did not provide reasonable suspicion that C.C-S. had committed or was about to commit a crime, and the dean’s comments about C.C-S.’s past behavior at school did not corroborate the weapons tip. Accordingly, the search was not reasonable.
The People argued that the Safe2Tell program merits special consideration because it is designed to promote anonymous tips about violent or otherwise harmful behavior at schools. While Safe2Tell has an important role in preventing school violence, investigations based on Safe2Tell tips by security officers and other school officials must occur within the bounds of students’ Fourth Amendment rights.
Alternatively, the People argued that C.C-S.’s admission to having drugs in his backpack provided the officers with reasonable suspicion to perform the search. Here, it was undisputed that C.C-S. was not free to leave and that he had been seized for Fourth Amendment purposes when he admitted he had marijuana in his backpack. For the same reasons that the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights, the seizure was unsupported by reasonable suspicion. And because C.C-S. was unreasonably detained, his admissions during the unlawful detention cannot uphold the backpack search.
The People further argued that even if the search and seizure were unlawful, the delinquency adjudication could still be affirmed because the exclusionary rule should not apply to searches of a student conducted by a school official. However, the Court of Appeals concluded that the exclusionary rule should apply in the context of searches and seizures of students by school officials because school security officers are governmental actors and applying the exclusionary rule in school searches conducted by school security officers would deter Fourth Amendment violations.
Lastly, the Court rejected the People’s argument that the backpack search was lawful under the attenuation exception to the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. Here, C.C-S. repeatedly refused to consent to a search of his backpack, attempted to leave several times, and did not admit to possessing marijuana until after the officer made clear that he would not be free to leave until his backpack was searched. Accordingly, the admission was the fruit of an unlawful detention, and the discovery of the marijuana was not sufficiently attenuated so as to dissipate the taint of the constitutional violation. Therefore, C.C-S.’s admission did not justify the otherwise illegal search.
The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.