A federal appeals court has ruled that a Missouri school system did not violate a student’s constitutional rights by requiring him to leave his backpack in a classroom while dogs sniffed the room for drugs.
On March 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a summary judgment ruling by Judge Richard Dorr of the Western District of Missouri in favor of the Springfield, Mo., public schools, and individual defendants: superintendent Norm Ridder, principal Ron Snodgrass and sheriff James Arnott. The court found the search "part of a reasonable procedure to maintain the safety and security of students at the school."
A student referred to in the opinion as "C.M." was a freshman at the district’s Central High School in the 2009-2010 school year. In April 2010, as part of a random test, officials brought in a dog to sniff his science classroom for drugs.
The students and teacher were instructed to exit the room, but to leave backpacks, purses and other personal items behind. A deputy sheriff and the dog were in the classroom for about five minutes, according to video footage. The dog did not indicate that drugs were in the room.
District personnel and the deputy sheriff testified that no student possessions were searched in that classroom.
C.M. claimed his backpack was fully zipped when he left the room. When he we came back in, he said, he "felt like the pockets [of his backpack] had been unzipped and stuff."
Mellony and Douglas Burlison, C.M.’s parents, sued the district and the officials in September 2010. They asked the court to declare that C.M.’s constitutional rights were violated by a search and seizure of his property. They sought a permanent injunction, actual and nominal damages and attorney fees.
Dorr issued his summary judgment opinion in January 2012, noting that the "written policies and procedures…appear to be reasonable and not in any way a deprivation of a federal right." He also wrote that, although there "may [have been] an issue as to whether C.M.’s belongings were searched" because C.M. 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 C.M. nor his backpack had been seized." The plaintiffs appealed.
Judge Diana Murphy wrote the majority opinion in Burlison v. Springfield Public Schools. Judges Steven Colloton and James Loken filed separate concurrences.
"Assuming that C.M.’s belongings were seized in this case when the school police officer directed that they be left in the classroom for approximately five minutes while the drug dog survey occurred, we conclude that the seizure was part of a reasonable procedure to maintain the safety and security of students at the school," Murphy wrote.
She added, "Requiring students to be separated from their property during such a reasonable procedure avoids potential embarrassment to students, ensures that students are not targeted by dogs, and decreases the possibility of dangerous interactions between dogs and children."
Loken wrote that if the backpack separation was a seizure, "it was objectively reasonable." He also wrote that it did not violate C.M.’s Fourth Amendment rights because there was no "meaningful interference" with C.M.’s possession of his property.
Colloton added, "Given the difficulty of the ‘seizure’ question, it is prudent to resolve this appeal based on the reasonableness of the school’s procedure under the circumstances."
There are "very few, if any, cases nationally that deal with seizure of student possessions in an educational environment," said Ransom Ellis III, an attorney at Ellis, Ellis, Hammons & Johnson of Springfield who argued for the school district and officials. Other cases are about the individualized suspicion officials need in order to search a child, he said.
"The court, in our opinion, broadened the case law nationally on the issue of seizure in an educational environment," Ellis said.
The sheriff’s lawyer, John Housley of Lowther Johnson in Springfield, said, "The opinion clearly establishes that the procedures utilized by the school district and sheriff to utilize canines to sniff inanimate objects that students bring to school was reasonable."
The Burlisons’ lawyer Jason Umbarger, a solo practitioner in Springfield, could not be immediately reached for comment.
Sheri Qualters can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.