Student privacy rights under the 4th Amendment: The Riley decision and cell phone searches

Under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, individuals are protected from “unreasonable searches and seizures” performed by government entities. Generally, this means that a police officer cannot search an individual without a warrant unless the officer has “probable cause” to believe a crime has been committed. If the officer lacks probable cause, the search is “unreasonable” under the Fourth Amendment.

In 1985, the Supreme Court held in New Jersey v. T.L.O. that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures applies to students in public schools. However, the Fourth Amendment rights guaranteed to public school students is balanced with the school’s duty to maintain order and discipline within the school. Students have a decreased expectation of privacy in their person and belongings in the school setting because the school administrators stand in loco parentis – in the place of the parent – with respect to the students.

As a result, the courts have applied a more relaxed “reasonableness” standard when evaluation the permissibility of school searches. Instead of “probable cause,” school administrators must have “reasonable cause” or “reasonable suspicion” to conduct a search. In applying this reasonableness standard, the courts have determined that a school administrator’s search of a student complies with the Fourth Amendment if: (1) the search is justified at its inception, and (2) if the scope of the search is reasonably related to the circumstances necessitating the search.

One area that is a hot bed of Fourth Amendment litigation in both the criminal and school context is the permissibility of cell phone searches. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Riley v. California, in which the Court held that police officers generally may not search the contents of a cell phone seized from a criminal defendant without a warrant. The Court recognized that modern cell phones may contain an immense amount of personal data in which a person has a high expectation of privacy.

As more and more students bring cell phones to school, school administrators must determine whether they may properly search a student’s cell phone when the student is suspected of violating school disciplinary codes. In light of Riley, it appears that courts will be more likely to side with students, notwithstanding their reduced expectation of privacy, if the suspected violation has nothing to do with a cell phone. It is reasonable to anticipate that future litigation will further define the scope of permissible cell phone searches, and clarify how Riley impacts the scope of student searches. In any event, school administrators are still bound by the standard annunciated in New Jersey v. T.L.O., which requires that any search of a student be justified at its inception and be reasonably related to the circumstances necessitating the search in the first instance.