Race, Schools and Backpack Searches – R.M. v. State

If you read this blog regularly, you know that we spend a fair amount of time in this space discussing the law as it applies to searches and seizures, whether it’s at a home, in a car or on the street. As Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals explains in R.M. v. State, the rules surrounding these issues change when the search takes places at a school.

R.M., a minor, was determined delinquent after an incident in which he was found carrying a gun on the campus of his Dade County school. According to the Court, a young student at the school told an administrator that he’d seen three older students examining a gun in a school bathroom. The witness described the person holding the weapon as a tall, thin African American boy with a dark complexion and “a low ‘afro’ haircut.” The witness also said that the person was wearing a red school polo shirt and skinny jeans and that he was carrying a backpack with a cartoon character on it. The school later said that there were roughly 60 black male students in the high school levels and that the described hairstyle, book bag and manner of dress were not common among those students.

The school’s principal and its police officer checked R.M.’s classroom for the suspect and noticed that he fit the description. R.M. admitted that there was a gun in his backpack when the principal took it. He was arrested and charged with three gun possession charges. A trial judge denied R.M.’s motion to suppress the gun evidence at trial, in which he argued that there was not reasonable suspicion for the principal and police officer to seize his bag based on the suspect description. The trial court later found R.M. delinquent on all three counts.

The Third District upheld the decision on appeal. “The constitutional protections afforded students at school are not the same as those provided to adults in the general public because the school is a unique setting that requires a balancing of the privacy interests of schoolchildren with the substantial need of teachers and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools,” the Court explained, quoting the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in New Jersey v. TLO. As a result, the search of a student in a school is allowable so long as it is reasonable under the circumstances. Other courts have clarified, however, that a search is unreasonable if conducted based on only a generalized description of a suspect.

The Court said the description at issue in this case was sufficiently specific to justify the search. Indeed, the Court said the witness gave specific information about the suspects’ height, weight, skin tone, haircut, clothes and backpack. “Furthermore, the universe of potential suspects was quite narrow because there were only sixty African American male students in the high school and the described clothing and haircut were uncommon,” the Court noted. It also said that the witness’s description was bolstered by the fact that he too was a student, who was known by the principal and police officer.

If you or a loved one is under the age of 18 and has been charged with a crime in Florida, contact the South Florida juvenile criminal defense attorneys at Anidjar & Levine. We represent clients of all ages throughout the region, including in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and Hialeah. Call us at 800-747-3733 or fill out and submit our online “Contact Us” form to schedule a free initial consultation.

Related blog posts:

When Can Cops Detain You? Musallam v. Florida

When Can Florida Cops Search Your House? Williams v. State

Suing for False Arrest in Florida – Bush v. City of Daytona Beach