The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati recently ruled that administrators at a Kentucky school district conducted an unlawful search of a student’s cell phone. The student, who was enrolled as an out-of-district student in the Owensboro Public School District, was using his cell phone during class in violation of school rules.  His teacher saw the phone, confiscated it, and turned the phone over to the school’s assistant principal.

While the student was enrolled in the district, there had been numerous incidents of bad behavior. In addition, the student had communicated to school officials on several occasions that he was a frequent drug user and that he was contemplating suicide.  Concerned about the student’s troubled past, the assistant principal decided to conduct a limited search of the student’s phone in order to determine whether the student was breaking any other rules or whether he might be contemplating suicide. The assistant principal found no evidence of wrongdoing or any indication that the student was a threat to himself or others. Nevertheless as a result of the incident, the district revoked the student’s out-of-district enrollment status.

The student sued the school district for violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, arguing that the assistant principal had no reasonable suspicion to justify a search of the student’s cell phone text messages.   The district responded that reasonable suspicion did exist based on the student’s documented drug abuse, his threats of suicide, and his numerous prior disciplinary infractions.  It argued that the search was limited and “aimed at uncovering any evidence of illegal activity” or any indication that the student might hurt himself.

The Court ruled in favor of the student and stated that the use of a cell phone on school grounds “does not automatically trigger an essentially unlimited right enabling a school official to search any content stored on the phone that is not related either substantively or temporally to the infraction.” The Court went on to state that general knowledge of illegal drug use or depressive tendencies does not enable a school official to search a student’s phone when a search would otherwise not be warranted.  In this case, there was no indication that the student was engaging in any illegal activity or that he was contemplating injury to himself or anyone else at the school.  Therefore, the search of the phone was improper and illegal.

The Court reiterated that the standard for search of a cell phone is the same as the standard for any search by school officials.  The main question that must be answered during any search by school officials at school is whether, under the circumstances, the search is reasonable.  There are two parts to the reasonableness test: (1) the search must be justified at its inception; and (2) the manner in which the search is conducted must be reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the search.

The case discussed above failed on the first prong.  In order to search a student’s cell phone, district administrators should have a reasonable suspicion that the search will turn up evidence the student is breaking other school rules or laws, or that the student plans to harm himself or others.  General knowledge that the student might be engaged in such activities is not enough. Without reasonable suspicion, district administrators cannot read any of the student’s texts or otherwise looking into the content of the student’s phone.

Administrators should also remember that when a search is justified at its inception, it must also be limited in scope.  Therefore, if an administrator reasonably believes he or she will find evidence of wrongdoing, the administrator may only look at the data on the phone that will contain that information. For example, if an administrator sees a student texting in class and has reasonable suspicion to believe that the student is engaging in a drug deal, the administrator can look through the recent text messages. However, absent any additional information, the administrator most likely is not justified in searching the student’s photo album. In any case, if you have questions about whether a search is reasonable, you should contact your district’s legal counsel to discuss the situation.

Case Citation: G.C. v. Owensboro Public Schools, No. 11-6476 (6th Cir. March 28, 2013)