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State v. Williams

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Fourth Division

June 27, 2017


         Appeal from the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis Honorable Steven R. Ohmer

          KURT S. ODENWALD, Judge


         Charles Williams ("Williams") appeals the trial court's judgment, entered after a bench trial, convicting him on one count of possessing a controlled substance. Williams, a student at a public high school, was searched by school officials and forced to remove items in his pockets after he arrived 30~minutes late to school. Among the items in Williams's pocket was a substance with a cocaine base. Williams contends that the trial court should have suppressed all evidence relating to his possession of a controlled substance because the evidence was the fruit of an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. Recognizing that we review the constitutionality of school searches under a more relaxed standard than otherwise is required under the Fourth Amendment, we nevertheless hold that the search of Williams violated his right to be free of an unreasonable search for two reasons. First, the school official conducting the search lacked any reasonable, individualized suspicion that Williams possessed contraband on his person. Second, the school's policy to conduct a hand search of all late-arriving students was, under all the circumstances, unreasonable. Because the school official's search of Williams violated the Fourth Amendment, the trial court should have suppressed the resulting evidence. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

         Factual and Procedural History

         Williams was a student at Vashon High School ("Vashon") when he was arrested there for possession of a substance with a cocaine base. The State charged Williams as an adult with one count of possessing a controlled substance-a class C felony under Section 195.202.[1] Before trial, Williams moved to suppress "any and all articles seized and intended to be used against [Williams], and any testimony regarding such evidence." Williams waived his right to a jury trial. The trial court held a bench trial, which adjudicated both the suppression motion and Williams's guilt.

         At trial, the State's main witness was DeAndre Duncan ("Duncan"), a school-safety employee at Vashon. Duncan's duties were to "patrol the school and protect and check anyone that comes in." Duncan knew Williams from prior interactions at the school. When asked about those interactions, Duncan stated, "Just the normal routine just get to class. Nothing negative."

         Duncan testified that, on the day of arrest, Williams arrived at school at least 30-minutes late with a "group of young men." Duncan instructed the group, as they came through the front door, to remove their shoes and all items from their pockets. The students were then required to go through a metal detector. Williams passed through undetected. After the metal detector, Duncan "immediately" hand searched the students. When Duncan attempted to pat down Williams's back pocket, Williams told him to stop. Suspecting that Williams had something "that didn't belong" in school, Duncan brought Williams to the security office.

         In the security office, Duncan demanded that Williams remove whatever was in his pocket. Williams removed a white "rocky substance" in a plastic wrapping. According to Duncan, Williams characterized this substance as "dope." Duncan handcuffed Williams and called Vashon's resource officer, DeAndre Davis ("Officer Davis"). Officer Davis worked for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department as a detective, but he was assigned to Vashon as the resource officer. Officer Davis arrived at the security office, seized the drugs, [2] and took Williams into custody. Williams was moved to Officer Davis's office, which was also at the school. Officer Davis started the booking process in his office before conveying Williams to the police station for formal booking. At some point during this process, Williams was read his Miranda[3] rights and stated that he understood those rights. According to Officer Davis's testimony at trial, Williams said that he "found" the contraband and "never should have picked [it] up."[4]

         A central issue at trial was the constitutionality of the hand search made by Duncan when Williams first entered the school, and consequently whether evidence concerning Williams's drug possession should have been suppressed as the fruit of an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. Duncan testified that he searched Williams according to school policy. According to Duncan, all students were required to pass through a metal detector to enter the school. But for all students who were late to school by 30 minutes or more, school policy required an additional "hand check." Duncan described this procedure vaguely:

A hand check entails removing all items from your pocket and even maybe shoes or-and to pull your pockets out and for me to check the front area of the body down the sleeves to pat the pockets and to-and even to the ankles, all the way down to the ankles.

         The purpose for this policy, according to Duncan, was to protect the students, teachers, and staff. Duncan further stated that the reason for this hand-check policy addressed "[s]uspicion on late arrival." When asked what was suspicious about late arrival, Duncan replied, "Because of the neighborhood we have a lot of drug activities and violence down in that neighborhood, so the school [Vashon] and the St. Louis Public Schools asked us to have a more detailed check on later arrival for students at the time." Duncan stressed that his hand search of Williams when he entered the school merely followed the school's policy.

         After hearing the testimony, [5] the trial court overruled the suppression motion. The trial court found that the school's policy of suspicionless searches for all late-arriving students was justified because it was uniformly applied and done for safety purposes. The trial court also found that the search's scope was reasonable because it was limited to the emptying of pockets and a pat-down-no strip search occurred. The trial court found the search to be reasonable.

         The trial court then found Williams guilty. The trial court suspended imposition of the sentence, placing Williams on probation. Williams's probation was later revoked and he was sentenced to three years in prison. Williams now appeals.

         Points on Appeal

         Williams raises three points on appeal. Point One argues that the trial court erred in overruling his motion to suppress evidence of the drugs found on his person because the hand search of Williams violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Point Two contends that the trial court erred by admitting, as evidence, Williams's statements in the security office acknowledging the presence of "dope." Point Three assigns error to the admission of Williams's statements that he "found" the drugs and should not have picked them up.

         Standard of Review

         "When reviewing the trial court's overruling of a motion to suppress, this Court considers the evidence presented at both the suppression hearing and at trial to determine whether sufficient evidence exists in the record to support the trial court's ruling, " State v. Pike, 162 S.W.3d 464, 472 (Mo. banc 2005). We will reverse only if the ruling was clearly erroneous. State v. Loggins, 445 S.W.3d 105, 109 (Mo. App. E.D. 2014). We defer to the trial court's factual findings and credibility determinations. Id. But, an alleged Fourth Amendment violation is a question of law. State v. Selvy, 462 S.W.3d 756, 764 (Mo. App. E.D. 2015). As such, the reasonableness of a public-school search under the Fourth Amendment is reviewed de novo. Doe ex rel. Doe v. Little Rock Sch. Dist., 380 F.3d 349, 352 (8th Cir. 2004).


         We begin our discussion with an overview of the Fourth Amendment's application to searches of students by public-school officials. After analyzing Duncan's search of Williams under two frameworks, we conclude that the search was unconstitutional. Finally, we determine that the evidence deriving from the unconstitutional search should have been suppressed as the fruit of a poisonous tree.

         I. The Fourth Amendment in Public Schools

         The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated ...." U.S. Const, amend. IV. The Fourth Amendment, by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment, applies to searches by public-school officials, as they are considered state actors. New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 334 (1985) (citing Elkins v. United States, 364 U.S. 206, 213 (1960)).

         "[T]he touchstone of the constitutionality of a governmental search" is "reasonableness." Bd. of Educ. of Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 92 of Pottawatomie Cntv, v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822, 828 (2002). Fourth Amendment rights in public schools are different from those rights possessed elsewhere, as the "reasonableness" inquiry cannot disregard the school's tutelary responsibility for children. Vernonia Sch. Dist. 47J v. Acton. 515 U.S. 646. 656 (1995) ("Vernonia"). Further, securing order in a public-school environment sometimes requires greater controls over students than those over adults. Earls, 536 U.S. at 831. As such, the United States Supreme Court has dispensed with the need for public-school officials to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before a search at school, because the warrant requirement would "unduly interfere with the maintenance of the swift and informal disciplinary procedures [that are] needed." Id. at 828-29.

         In the end, whether a public-school official's search of a student is unconstitutional depends on the reasonableness of the search under all circumstances. T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 341; Vernonia. 515 U.S. at 652; Earls. 536 U.S. at 828. The United States Supreme Court has employed two different frameworks in analyzing the reasonableness of searches conducted by public-school officials.

         The first framework applies when the search is based on some level of individualized suspicion that a student has violated the law or school rules. See T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 345-46 (search of a student's purse after a teacher caught the student smoking in violation of school rules); Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364, 373-74 (2009) (strip search of student based on suspicion that she was distributing contraband). Under this first framework, the reasonableness of a search "involves a twofold inquiry": (1) whether the action was "justified at its inception, " and (2) whether the search as actually conducted was "reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place." T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 341. The Supreme Court has required only reasonable suspicion-rather than probable cause-to justify a search, or a "moderate chance" of finding evidence of the wrongdoing suspected.[6]Redding, 557 U.S. at 371.

         The second framework recognizes that individualized suspicion is not an irreducible requirement of the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness inquiry. Vernonia, 515 U.S. at 653. Thus, even absent individualized suspicion, a search might pass constitutional muster under a broad balancing test. The United States Supreme Court has applied the second framework twice, both in the context of suspicionless drug testing-under a specific school policy-of public-school students participating in extracurricular activities. See Vernonia, 515 U.S. at 654-664; Earls, 536 U.S. at 830-838. Under the Vernonia/Earls framework, a court must weigh the intrusion on the student's Fourth Amendment rights against the promotion of legitimate governmental interests. Earls, 536 U.S. at 830. Three factors guide this analysis: (1) "the nature of the privacy interest allegedly compromised, " (2) "the character of the intrusion imposed, " and (3) "the nature and immediacy of the government's concerns and the efficacy of the [p]olicy in meeting them." Earls, 536 U.S. at 830-838; see also Vernonia. 515 U.S. at 654-664. While we are aware of no Missouri case applying the Vemonia/Eatis framework, the Eighth Circuit has applied it to suspicionless searches conducted according to a school policy. See Doe, 380 F.3d at 354-57 (searching the students' belongings, without individualized suspicion, in randomly selected classrooms under school policy); see also Hough v. Shakopee Pub. Sch.. 608 F.Supp.2d 1087, 1109 (D. Minn. 2009) (school policy of daily, suspicionless searches of students).

         The parties here do not agree on the proper framework to apply. Williams argues that individualized suspicion is required under T.L.O. and that Duncan did not have reasonable suspicion to force Williams to empty his pockets and to pat him down. Conversely, the State emphasizes the language of Vemonja and Earls in asserting that no individualized suspicion was necessary because Duncan conducted the search according to the school's policy. Even assuming arguendo that reasonable suspicion was required, the State asserts that Williams's tardiness provided the reasonable suspicion to justify the search. The parties raise plausible arguments under each of the frameworks developed by the Supreme Court in T.L.O. and Vernonia/Earls. Accordingly, we see legitimate reasons for analyzing this case under both frameworks, and we will do so in turn.

         II. Application of T.L.O.-Suspicion-Based Searches

         Under the two-pronged T.L.O. framework, the search of Williams was reasonable if it was (1) "justified at its inception" and, if so, (2) whether the search conducted was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first place. 469 U.S. at 341. Ordinarily, a search is justified at inception when "there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school." Id. at 341-42. This test amounts to reasonable suspicion, allowing a search if "a moderate chance of finding evidence of wrongdoing" exists. Redding, 557 U.S. at 371. A search is permissible in scope when "the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction." T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 342. There must exist some nexus between the item searched for and the suspected violation. Id. at 345.

         The State argues that Williams's tardiness alone provides the requisite suspicion to justify the pat-down search. The State's conclusory argument stems from Justice Breyer's concurrence in Earls, which noted that lower courts have used tardiness as a court-approved factor in justifying suspicion-based searches. Earls, 536 U.S. at 842 (Breyer, J., concurring).[7] However, Justice Breyer's statement does not suggest that tardiness functions as a litmus test or per se rule establishing reasonable suspicion.[8] Tardiness, at best, is merely a factor in the reasonable-suspicion analysis. We found no Missouri case applying T.L.O.'s reasonable-suspicion test to a student search, let alone considering a student's tardiness in that context. Other jurisdictions support our skepticism that a student's tardiness or truancy at school, alone, establishes reasonable suspicion to justify this search.

         For example, an Indiana appellate court considered the search of D.M., a student at an alternative school who entered his class nearly one hour late. P.M. v. State, 902 N.E.2d 276, 277 (Ind. Ct App. 2009). D.M.'s teacher overheard him tell another student that he had been shopping that morning and that he "had a stack." Id. The teacher searched D.M.'s jacket, finding stolen credit cards and a set of keys for a stolen car. Id. The State defended the search's reasonableness because of D.M.'s limited expectation of privacy as a student at school, his late arrival to class, his comments to the other student about the "stack, " and the fact that other students (not the defendant) had recently possessed weapons and drugs at school. Id. at 279. The court held that this evidence lacked justification for the search at its inception because no reasonable grounds existed for suspecting that D.M. possessed contraband. Id. (applying T.L.O.). While the court was "reluctant to interfere with a school's disciplinary policies, the standard enunciated in T.L.O. commands that students' legitimate privacy rights must, nonetheless, be balanced against the need of school officials to deal effectively with the threat of drugs and violence." Id.; see also D.I.R. v. State, 683 N.E.2d 251, 253 (Ind.Ct.App. 1997) (holding no justification existed for a search at its inception when an official reached into the student's pocket "merely because she arrived late for class").

         The Supreme Court of California also rejected tardiness or truancy as a sole factor justifying a search of a public-school student. In re William G., 709 P.2d 1287, 1297 (Cal. 1985). In William G., an assistant principal encountered three students who were late to class. Id. at 1289. Upon questioning, William made furtive gestures in attempting to hide his calculator case, which had an odd-looking bulge. Id. The assistant principal found contraband upon a search of the calculator case. Id. In applying T.L.O., the court held that the assistant principal "articulated no facts to support a reasonable suspicion that William was engaged in a proscribed activity justifying a search." Id. at 1297. In so holding, the court stressed that the record reflected a "complete lack of any prior knowledge or information" relating to William's possession, use, or sale of contraband. Id. The student's tardiness and truancy provided no reasonable basis for conducting a search of any kind. Id.

         Applying T.L.O. and William G., a New Mexico court arrived at a similar conclusion on similar facts. See State v. Pablo R., 137 P.3d 1198, 1202 (N.M. Ct. App. 2006). A school official encountered a high-school student out of class without permission. Id. The school official testified about a few similar encounters in the past with Child. Id. at 1200. On those occasions, the school official simply told Child to return to class. Id. This time, however, Child acted "a little nervous" and fidgety, so the school official suspected that he might have a weapon or marijuana on him. Id. In holding that a subsequent search of the Child's person was not justified at its inception, the court stressed that the school official did not suspect Child of engaging in criminal activity, did not smell marijuana, had no other history of wrongdoing with Child, and had no knowledge or information concerning any wrongdoing on this occasion, other than his being out of class. Id. at 1202. The court found "no logical connection between the search of Child for contraband and the suspected violation of being out of class without a pass." Id. Because the school officials had "no idea what Child might have had in his possession upon searching him, or why the search might have revealed evidence of a violation of the law or school rules, " the court found no "reasonable suspicion to justify the search of Child at its inception." Id. at 1203.

         The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts also agrees. See Com, v. Damian P., 752 N.E.2d 679, 683 (Mass. 2001). A school official ordered Damian to empty his pockets, remove his shoes, and submit to a pat-down search. Id. at 681. The only basis for the search was Damian's truant behavior-missing class on one day, and then missing his subsequent disciplinary hearing. Id. at 682. The court stressed that Damian was not searched for evidence of his truancy; instead, he was searched for contraband. Id. at 683. "It was pure speculation to conclude that, because Damian was out of class for a period of time during the day, he was likely to have contraband." Id. Possibility and speculation, like hunches and ...

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