What Privacy Do Students Have? Ohio Supreme Court Hears Backpack Seizure Case

Mar 1, 2017

A case originating at a Columbus high school was heard by the Ohio Supreme Court Wednesday. It revolves around how and why a student at a public school can have their personal property searched.

The case originated in 2013, when a then-18-year-old Joshua Polk had his bag searched at Whetstone High School. School officials found a gun in Polk's possession, but exactly how the gun was discovered has been ruled unlawful in two lower court hearings. 

A security guard at Whetstone High School found the backpack left unattended on a bus. He did a brief search of the bag and found that it belonged to Polk. The security guard then took the backpack to the principle's office, believing that Polk was a gang member, and dumped it out to discover 13 bullets.

They tracked down Polk and found that, in another bag, Polk had brought a gun to school.

At the center of the case is the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects citizens from unlawful search and seizure.

Had the guard been a police officer, he would have needed probable cause - or a warrant - before fully searching the backpack.

The prosecutor, however, argues that wasn't necessary because Columbus City Schools has a policy to search unattended bags for safety concerns.

During Wednesday's hearing, Judge Judith French brought up an argument that, in this day and age, a backpack sitting by itself can be a dangerous thing.

"Doesn't that inform our decision, that we want school officials to go further and really investigate what is in that bag, regardless of whether a student's name is on it?" French asked. "I mean, is there a bomb in that bag?"

In two lower courts, judges ruled the security guard did not have reasonable suspicion to search Polk's backpack the second time. Polk's lawyer, Timothy Pierce, says the initial search carried out by security was in line with the school's policy to assess risk and find out who the owner was.

"But this protocol apparently doesn't define sufficiently, or perhaps not at all, when that protocol's been satisfied, and that raises the problem with discretion," Pierce argued.

It was when the guard dumped out the backpack's contents, Pierce argues, that he overstepped.

As a result of the search, Polk faced charges for possession of a gun on school property. But because courts ruled that the gun was discovered through an unlawful search, it was thrown out as evidence - a case of "fruit from a poisoned tree."  

If the Ohio Supreme Court rules otherwise, though, that could change.

"It could have a very serious impact in public schools," says Ric Simmons, a professor at the Ohio State University law school. "Public school officials generally want more authority to search backpacks, lockers. Students themselves, and of course civil libertarians, believe that students should have the same rights as everyone else."

Going forward, Simmons says, this case could end up defining how students' privacy is measured against the need to secure a campus.

"It's all about balance, and how you want to balance what the school's rights are to keep the school safe, and the rights of the students to have the same rights that we all do," he says.