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In Re Sean A., A Person Coming Under the Juvenile Court Law. v. Sean A

December 22, 2010


Super. Ct. No. J222955 APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of San Diego County, Lawrence Kapiloff, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Huffman, Acting P. J.


Retired Judge of the San Diego Sup. Ct. assigned by the Chief Justice pursuant to art. VI, § 6 of the Cal. Const. Affirmed.

The juvenile court declared Sean A. a ward of the court (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 602) and placed him on probation after Sean admitted to possessing a controlled substance for sale in violation of Health and Safety Code section 11378.

Sean appeals, contending that the juvenile court erred by denying his motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of a search of his person by a public high school official premised on the fact that he left and returned to campus during the school day. Sean also challenges one of the conditions of his probation.

We conclude that the search was lawful, and that Sean has waived any objection to his probation conditions by failing to object in the juvenile court.


Sean, who was a student at a public high school, was observed by an attendance clerk as he was returning to campus in the middle of the school day. The assistant principal reviewed Sean's attendance record for the day and noticed that Sean had been absent from his period 1 and 2 classes, present for his period 3 class, and then absent from his period 4 class.

The high school conducts searches of students who leave campus and then return during the school day. Specifically, the school's written policy, set forth in the behavior code section of the school's student handbook, states that "students who return to campus after being 'out-of-bounds' are subject to a search of their person, their possessions, and vehicle when appropriate."*fn1 The assistant principal testified, "I search every student who leaves campus and comes back." He stated that the purpose of the rule is to "keep students that are on campus safe" and to ensure that "nobody's bringing anything on campus they shouldn't."

Having determined from Sean's attendance record that he had left and returned to campus, the assistant principal called Sean to his office. Sean told the assistant principal that he went home to retrieve a notebook.

The assistant principal asked Sean to empty out the contents of his pockets. One of Sean's pockets held a plastic bag containing 44 pills of methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (commonly known as MDMA or ecstasy). After being arrested, Sean apparently told police that he left campus to pick up the pills and had sold some of them on the way back to campus.*fn2

A petition was filed against Sean in juvenile court under Welfare and Institutions Code section 602, alleging (1) unlawful possession of a controlled substance for the purpose of sale; and (2) unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

Sean brought a motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the assistant principal's search of him, contending that the search was unlawful. After hearing the testimony of the assistant principal and receiving exhibits, including a handbook setting forth the high school's policies, the juvenile court denied the motion to suppress, stating that it believed the high school's policy of searching students who left and returned to campus was "in line with the Constitution" and did not "effectively deny students on campus . . . the right to be free from search or seizure."

Sean subsequently admitted to possessing a controlled substance for sale in violation of Health and Safety Code section 11378. The district attorney dismissed the simple possession count, and the juvenile court placed Sean on probation.




A. Standard of Review

On appeal from a ruling denying a motion to suppress evidence, we "exercise our independent judgment to determine whether, on the facts found by the court, the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment [of the United States Constitution (the Fourth Amendment)]." (In re Lisa G. (2004) 125 Cal.App.4th 801, 805 (Lisa G.).) If any findings of fact are challenged, we apply a substantial evidence standard of review. (Ibid.)

The Fourth Amendment protects students on a public school campus against unreasonable searches and seizures. (In re Randy G. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 556, 567; In re William G. (1985) 40 Cal.3d 550, 561.) However, strict application of the principles of the Fourth Amendment as used in criminal law enforcement matters does not appropriately fit the circumstances of the operation of the public schools. The need to maintain discipline, provide a safe environment for learning and prevent the harmful impact on the students and staff of drugs and weapons cannot be denied.

Our Supreme Court in In re Randy G., described the societal interest in safe schools in compelling terms. The court stated: "The governmental interest at stake is of the highest order. '[E]ducation is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.' (Brown v. Board of Education (1954) 347 U.S. 483, 493.) 'Some modicum of discipline and order is essential if the educational function is to be performed.' (Goss v. Lopez [(1975) 419 U.S. 565, 580].) School personnel, to maintain or promote order, may need to send students into and out of classrooms, define or alter schedules, summon students to the office, or question them in the hall. Yet, as the high court has observed, school officials 'are not in the business of investigating violations of the criminal laws . . . and otherwise have little occasion to become familiar with the intricacies of this Court's Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.' (Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives' Assn. (1989) 489 U.S. 602, 623 [(Skinner)].) Those officials must be permitted to exercise their broad supervisory and disciplinary powers, without worrying that every encounter with a student will be converted into an opportunity for constitutional review. To allow minor students to challenge each of these decisions, through a motion to suppress or in a civil rights action under 42 United States Code section 1983, as lacking articulable facts supporting reasonable suspicion would make a mockery of school discipline and order." (In re Randy G., supra, 26 Cal.4th at p. 566.)

In New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) 469 U.S. 325 (T.L.O.), the court recognized the legitimate needs of schools to maintain a safe environment. The court there, dealing with an individualized search of a student who had been seen smoking in the restroom, found that the requirement for probable cause as applied to law enforcement would be inappropriate for the school environment. The court declared that reasonable suspicion on the part of administrators was sufficient to meet the demands of the Fourth Amendment. The court recognized the applicability of the ...

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