The Tale of the Backpack: Seizure of Property in the Public School Setting – By: Natalie Hoernschemeyer

Published by MARE, May 2013

A high school student filed suit claiming that his property was subjected to an illegal and unconstitutional seizure when he was briefly separated from his backpack and books during a random search of his science classroom by the local deputy and drug dog.  However, on March 4, 2013, the Eighth Circuit, in the case of Burlison v. Springfield Public Schools,[1] ruled in favor of the district, its superintendent and principal, as well as the local sheriff, and against the student in a case which defines the contours of a “seizure” under the United States and Missouri Constitutions in a public school setting.  The facts surrounding this case are as follows:

The student was a freshman at the district’s Central High School during the 2009-2010 school year.  In the spring, the high school was subject to a search for drugs by the Greene County Sheriff’s Department in conjunction with district procedure for drug detection surveys and searches.  The district created these procedures in order to address what the district stated to be a known drug problem within the confines of its schools.  The student, bolstering the district’s concern about drugs in its schools, testified that he knew a lot of high school students who were using drugs.  The drug survey was conducted in accordance with the school district’s policies.

On the day of the search, the student was notified that his particular science classroom was one of the randomly chosen classrooms to be sniffed by a drug dog.  The students and the teachers were instructed by the school police officer to leave all backpacks, purses, and any other personal items behind as they left the classroom.

The student left his backpack and books in the classroom and went into the hallway.  Once the room was cleared of students, the deputy sheriff took the drug dog into the science classroom and conducted a “drug dog detection activity,” which lasted approximately five minutes.  The drug dog did not alert to any illegal drugs in the classroom.  The deputy who handled the drug dog during the activity later testified that no student possessions were searched in the classroom.  However, the student felt that the pockets of his backpack had been unzipped.  Thereafter the student filed a lawsuit against the district, district officials and local sheriff.

On appeal before the Eighth Circuit, the student argued that his property was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, Section 15 of the Missouri Constitution.[2]   The Fourth Amendment protects the right of the people “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and affects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”  Judge Murphy writing for the Court, noted that seizure of property under the Fourth Amendment occurs when there is “some meaningful interference with an individual’s possessory interests in that property.”  Judge Murphy wrote that the Fourth Amendment demands that seizure of property “be reasonable” and whether the seizure is reasonable depends on the context.  Significantly, in the instant case, the context is a public school setting where a student’s privacy interest is limited because students have a lesser expectation of privacy than members of the general population.

Judge Murphy wrote that “assuming that [student’s] belongings were seized in this case” when the student’s backpack and books were left in his classroom for approximately five minutes and while the drug dog survey occurred, it found that such seizure was part of a “reasonable procedure to maintain the safety and security of  students at the school.”  The Court noted that the student was only separated from his belongings for a very brief period of time and the purpose for such separation was to avoid any potentially unsafe interactions between the dog and the students, and to avoid any type of embarrassment to any of the students if the drug dog alerted to their particular belongings.

Additionally, the two other Circuit Judges joined the opinion of the Court, but filed concurring opinions examining the question of whether a seizure actually occurred.   Judge Loken’s concurring opinion stated that he agreed that if separating the student from his backpack for five minutes was a seizure, it was objectionably reasonable and thus, did not violate the student’s Fourth Amendment rights.  However, Judge Loken went further to state that he believed that no seizure ever occurred of the student’s personal belongings in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  Judge Loken reasserted that under the Fourth Amendment, “seizure” of property occurs when there is some “meaningful interference” with an individual’s possessory interest in that property.  Therefore, he noted that since the Fourth Amendment requires some “meaningful” interference, the term “meaningful” excludes an “inconsequential interference” with an individual’s possessory interest.  Therefore, Judge Loken stated that, in his view, the act of the student leaving his backpack in the science classroom while he waited in the hall for the drug dog to briefly sniff the classroom was at most an “inconsequential interference.”

Judge Colloton who also filed a concurring opinion noted the difficulty in deciding whether an actual seizure occurred, and therefore he found it prudent to resolve the appeal based solely on the reasonableness of the school’s procedure under the circumstances.

The Springfield case, while providing guidance for Missouri public schools, demonstrates the difficulty even our courts have in determining whether a seizure of property has occurred in our public school setting.

[1] 2013 WL 776816 (8th Cir. March 4, 2013)

[2] Before the district court, the student claimed his property was also subject to an unlawful search, but the district court ruled that “[w]hile there may [have been] an issue as to whether [student’s] belongings were searched because [student] had alleged that his backpack had been unzipped when he returned to the classroom, none of the named defendants could be liable because they had not performed the alleged search and neither [student] nor his backpack had been seized.”  The student appealed to the Eighth Circuit the district court’s conclusion that there was no seizure, but he did not appeal the district court’s determination that there was no search.  Accordingly, this article is limited in scope to the analysis of the seizure of the property, not whether there was a search.

© 2013 Mickes Goldman O’Toole, LLC

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