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In re L.E.

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Fifth Division

September 10, 2019

IN THE INTEREST OF: L.E.,

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis Cause No. 1722JU-00529. Honorable Robin Ransom Judge.

          OPINION

          COLLEEN DOLAN, CHIEF JUDGE.

         L.E. appeals the order and judgment of the Juvenile Division of the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis (the "juvenile court") finding that L.E. committed the offense of unlawful use of a weapon when he brought a firearm into Soldan High School. In his sole point on appeal, L.E. argues that the juvenile court clearly erred in overruling his motion to suppress evidence of the firearm being found in a tissue box that was inside L.E.'s backpack because the search conducted by the school's safety officers was unlawful in that it violated L.E.'s Fourth Amendment rights.[1] Specifically, L.E. asserts that the suspicionless hand-search of his backpack conducted by Saint Louis Public Schools' ("SLPS")[2] safety officers (which resulted in the discovery of the firearm in L.E.'s backpack) violated his Fourth Amendment rights because the search was unreasonable under all of the circumstances. Finding that the search did not violate L.E.'s Fourth Amendment rights and that the juvenile court did not err in denying his motion to suppress evidence relating to the discovery of the firearm, we affirm the judgment of the juvenile court.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The following facts were adduced from the admitted evidence. On the morning of August 17, 2018, L.E. entered Soldan High School to attend classes. Students routinely enter the school through its back doors, whereupon entering, they are required to walk through a metal detector and have their bags hand-searched by either a school safety officer or a teacher. This procedure, which SLPS implements daily throughout its school system, is "for the safety of the students, the staff and the individuals in the building" and to ensure that nothing enters the school "that would harm anyone in the building." When L.E. entered the school on August 17, 2018, he complied with said procedure, placing his bag on the table to be searched and walking through the metal detector. School Safety Officer Harrison Carey ("Carey") searched L.E.'s bag by hand by removing most of the items inside, as was the protocol for all persons entering the school. Upon conducting his search, Carey discovered a tissue box inside L.E.'s bag that felt unusually heavy. Carey shook the tissue box and asked L.E. what was inside; L.E. responded "don't open that." Carey called over his fellow safety officer, School Safety Officer Ricardo Graham ("Graham"), to search the box. At that point, L.E. implored Carey not to open the box, and whispered to Carey that there was a loaded .380 caliber handgun inside. L.E. told Carey and Graham that he brought the gun to school in case there was "some kind of altercation" at the football game that night with individuals from a neighborhood near where L.E. lived. Without opening the tissue box, Carey and Graham escorted L.E. to the school's security office, where they handcuffed L.E. Carey and Graham thereafter opened the tissue box and found the firearm (which was loaded with one round that was chambered), unloaded the gun, and called the police. When police officers arrived, they took L.E. into custody, and obtained the firearm, magazine, and bullet from Carey and Graham.

         Prior to the gun being discovered in L.E.'s backpack, the juvenile court had placed L.E. on Intensive Official Court Supervision, but leaving him in the care, custody, and control of his mother, after the court found that L.E. had committed the offenses of first-degree robbery and attempted first-degree robbery in October of 2017. After the gun was found in L.E.'s backpack, a juvenile officer of the Division of Youth Services of the Missouri Department of Social Services filed an amended motion to modify the previous order and judgment of the juvenile court. In the amended motion to modify, the juvenile officer asserted that modification of the court's previous order was appropriate because L.E. had committed the offense of unlawful use of a weapon by bringing a loaded firearm into his school on August 17, 2018.[3] Thereafter, L.E. filed a motion to suppress evidence concerning the firearm at issue because it was found as a result of an unlawful search and seizure that violated L.E.'s Fourth Amendment rights; the parties subsequently submitted memoranda to the juvenile court on that issue, and the court heard argument on that issue during a hearing on the matter.

         At the hearing, testimony was proffered by both Carey and Graham, in which they detailed the reasons for SLPS' search policy and the events of August 17, 2018, preceding L.E.'s arrest. Carey and Graham also testified that it was protocol to have the students (including L.E.) unzip every compartment of their bags, the officer or teacher searching would remove most, if not all items from the bags to ensure no dangerous items were inside, and said hand-searches of bags occur on a table next to the metal detectors through which students walk upon entering the school. Additionally, the firearm, magazine, and bullet were also presented as evidence. After all of the evidence had been presented and the juvenile court had heard argument on the motion to suppress, the court denied the motion, reasoning that the search procedure implemented by SLPS did not violate L.E.'s Fourth Amendment rights because the search was conducted for the safety of persons inside the building and for the purpose of preventing weapons from entering the school. The court thereafter entered its order and judgment finding that the juvenile officer had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that L.E. committed the offense of unlawful use of a weapon, and committed L.E. to the Division of Youth Services for appropriate placement.

         This appeal follows.

         II. Standard of Review

         Ordinarily, "[w]hen 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," and will reverse only if the ruling was clearly erroneous. State v. Williams, 521 S.W.3d 689, 693 (Mo. App. E.D. 2017) (quoting State v. Pike, 162 S.W.3d 464, 472 (Mo. banc 2005)); see also State v. J.D.L.C., 293 S.W.3d 85, 87-88 (Mo. App. W.D. 2009). However, while we give deference to a trial court's factual findings and credibility determinations, we review questions of law (such as whether a constitutional right was violated) de novo. Williams, 521 S.W.3d at 693; State v. Grayson, 336 S.W.3d 138, 142 (Mo. banc 2011); In Interest of J.L.H., 488 S.W.3d 689, 693 (Mo. App. W.D. 2016).

         III. Discussion

         In his sole point on appeal, L.E. argues that the juvenile court clearly erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence of the firearm found in his backpack because the search conducted upon his backpack was unlawful. Specifically, L.E. contends that the suspicionless hand-search of his backpack violated his Fourth Amendment rights in that: the search that yielded the firearm found in L.E.'s bag was not based upon individualized reasonable suspicion that L.E. was involved in any illicit activity; it unreasonably infringed upon L.E.'s legitimate expectation of privacy in his bag; the intrusiveness of the search was severe; and the nature and immediacy of the school's interest in conducting the search was no more than a generalized concern for safety without a showing of a need sufficient to justify the substantial intrusion upon L.E.'s privacy interest.

         The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States 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." Williams, 521 S.W.3d at 694 (citing New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 334 (1985)); see also Doe ex rel. Doe v. Little Rock Sch. Dist., 380 F.3d 349, 351-52 (8th Cir. 2004).

         "'Reasonableness' is 'the touchstone of the constitutionality of a governmental search,' and the relevant constitutional question in school search cases is 'whether the search was reasonable in all the circumstances.'" Doe, 380 F.3d at 352 (quoting Bd. of Educ. of Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 92 of Pottawatomie Cnty. v. Earls,536 U.S. 822, 828 (2002) and Thompson v. Carthage Sch. Dist.,87 F.3d 979, 982 (8th Cir. 1996)) (internal citations omitted). Unlike search-and-seizure cases in other contexts, the "reasonableness" inquiry in regards to the Fourth Amendment in public schools must include the consideration of "the school's tutelary responsibility for children" and that "securing order in a public-school environment sometimes requires greater controls over students than those over adults." Williams, 521 S.W.3d at 694 (citing Vernonia Sch. Dist. 47J v. Acton,515 U.S. 646, 656 (1995) ("Vernonia") and Earls, 536 U.S. at 831). For that reason, the Supreme Court of the United States has maintained ...


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