Law School Case Brief
State v. Polk - 2017-Ohio-2735, 150 Ohio St. 3d 29, 78 N.E.3d 834
A school's protocol requiring searches of unattended book bags - to determine ownership and whether the contents are dangerous - furthers the compelling governmental interest in protecting public-school students from physical harm.
Robert Lindsey, who was not a police officer, was employed as a safety and security resource coordinator by the Columbus City School District. His job was to ensure that students are safe, and it required him to undertake tasks such as running fire drills and carrying out security checks of school buildings, the students, and their lockers. At a hearing on Polk's suppression motion, Lindsey testified that Columbus's Whetstone High School has an unwritten protocol requiring searches of "unattended" book bags to identify their owners and to ensure that their contents are not dangerous. Lindsey testified that the protocol was based on "current events and safety concerns," "what's going on with America," and studies indicating that an "[u]nattended bag * * * is a priority."
On February 5, 2013, while Lindsey was on duty at Whetstone, a bus driver found a book bag during his walk-through and gave it to Lindsey. Lindsey testified that it was a typical book bag carried by Whetstone students. He opened the bag enough to discern papers, notebooks, a binder, and "stuff like that." One of the papers had Polk's name on it. Recalling a rumor that Polk was possibly in a gang, Lindsey immediately took the bag to Whetstone's principal, Mr. Barrett. Together they emptied Polk's bag of its contents—which, Lindsey testified, he would have done regardless of the rumor that Polk may have been in a gang because that was the protocol. Upon emptying the bag, Lindsey and Barrett discovered bullets, which Lindsey had not noticed when he initially opened the bag after receiving it from the bus driver. Barrett then notified a police officer. The police officer then incapacitated Polk by placing him in a hold and instructed Lindsey to search a book bag that Polk was carrying. Lindsey found a handgun in a side compartment of that bag. The State charged Polk with one count of conveyance or possession of a deadly weapon or dangerous ordnance in a school-safety zone. Polk filed a motion to suppress the bullets and the handgun, arguing that the searches of both book bags were unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment and that regardless of the legality of the search of the bag that Polk was found carrying, the handgun should be excluded as fruit of the poisonous tree. The State filed a memorandum in opposition. The trial court granted Polk's motion to suppress. The court of appeals affirmed. The State sought review.
Was the school’s protocol requiring searches of unattended book bags - to determine ownership and whether the contents are dangerous - violative of the Fourth Amendment as an unreasonable search?
Based on the facts of this case, the Supreme Court Court of Ohio held that a high school's protocol requiring searches of unattended book bags - to determine ownership and whether the contents are dangerous - furthers the compelling governmental interest in protecting public-school students from physical harm. The school employees' search of an unattended book bag belonging to Polk was limited to furthering that compelling governmental interest and was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Although a cursory review of the bag, which was left on an empty school bus, provided a school official with the name of the bag's owner, it did not enable him to determine that the contents were not dangerous; that determination could not be made - and execution of the school's reasonable protocol for searching unattended book bags could not be completed - until the bag was emptied. The Court reversed the judgment.
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