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Ohio Supreme Court: Warrantless search of student backpack was OK

If a high school student leaves his backpack on the bus, would it be fair for him or her to expect it to be left unopened? Would it put anyone in danger? What if there was a rumor the student was a gang member?

These are the questions the Ohio Supreme Court recently answered in the case of a Columbus high school student who was charged with possession of a deadly weapon after leaving his bag unattended on a bus.

A little background: The U.S. Supreme Court had already found in the 1991 case of Florida v. Bostick that bag searches on buses are constitutionally doubtful in the best of circumstances. However, that differs somewhat from the one heard by the Ohio Supreme Court. Moreover, students have less privacy rights than adults.

Couldn't any unattended bag contain a bomb?

According to the Courthouse News Service, on one February morning in 2013, a student left his backpack on a bus. A school security guard found it and opened it only enough to identify its probable owner. Based on a rumor that the student was a gang member, however, he brought the backpack to the school principal instead of returning it to the student.

The school principal felt free to empty the bag, and inside they found bullets. The pair then contacted a police officer.

The principal, the security guard and the police officer confronted the student in a hallway, where the police officer executed a take-down and incapacitated the student.

They then searched another bag the student had on his person. Inside there was a gun.

The student was charged with possession of a deadly weapon, and argued that these searches were unreasonable -- and therefore illegal under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He asked for the evidence to be suppressed, and both the trial court and the Franklin County Appeals Court agreed.

The Ohio Supreme Court disagreed and sent his case back to trial. First, the court reaffirmed that schools are “special needs” settings that allow more warrantless searches than would be allowed for adults.

Next, they reasoned that at each step, the child’s right to privacy was outweighed by the “In compelling governmental interest in protecting public-school students from physical harm.”

After all, they reasoned, any unattended bag could contain a tiny explosive device fashioned out of carbon dioxide cartridges called a ‘cricket bomb’ like those attempted by the Columbine High School shooters. Such a bomb might not be noticed in a cursory search meant merely to identify the owner of the bag.

Under circumstances like those -- however unlikely they might seem -- surely the search was reasonable?

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