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Local Governments and School Districts Blog

"Can you hear me now?" Supreme Court May Provide Clarity on Cell Phone Searches

Authored by Kevin J.T. Terry
Posted on January 21, 2014
Filed under Local Governments and School Districts

Last Friday, the Supreme Court decided to tackle an issue that may impact school districts. The Court will review a pair of cases about whether the police need a warrant to search the contents of a criminal suspect's cell phone. While school district administrators are held to a lower standard than police officers when searching a student's cell phone, reasonable suspicion versus probable cause, at least two courts have ruled against such searches.

The standard of reasonable suspicion for searches of students and their belongings comes from the Supreme Court's landmark decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O., which states that searches of students not be "excessively intrusive" in light of the infraction. This provides school district administrators greater latitude than police in conducting searches.

While some may argue that a search of a student's cell phone is not nearly as intrusive as other searches, courts across the country have found that these can violate student rights. Last year, a federal court ruled that a Kentucky school administrator's search of text messages on a student's personal phone violated the student's Fourth Amendment rights. It isn't guaranteed that the Court will directly address school district searches in its decision, but there is now another opportunity for the Court to provide input. Clear guidance from the Supreme Court may help school districts handle student discipline matters.