Court of Appeal Upholds Search of Student’s Cell Phone

April 2016

In re: Rafael C. (03/25/16, No. A142963) is a recently decided California Court of Appeal case that highlights the issue of school districts performing searches of students’ cell phones.  Although this decision did not analyze California’s new Electronic Communications Privacy Act (Senate Bill 178), it emphasizes the need for districts to review and revise their “Acceptable Use of Technology” policies to address the circumstances under which district administrators may search electronic data created and stored on student devices and to provide administrators/supervisors with training regarding proper investigation techniques in the digital age.  Districts should contact legal counsel to review their current policy to ensure that it both protects students’ federal constitutional rights and adheres to the specific limitations under SB 178.  (See F3’s NewsFlash discussing SB 178 here.)  

In In re Rafael C., the Court of Appeal affirmed a ruling by a juvenile court, which found that a school district lawfully searched a student’s cell phone.  The search at issue took place before the enactment of SB 178 and the significant new limitations on the ability of a state government entity to compel the production of—and access to information on—an electronic device.  As such, SB 178 was not applied in this case and the Court of Appeal did not discuss it.  

The case stemmed from an incident at the student’s high school in which a firearm was discovered on campus.  School administrators suspected the student’s involvement, and in the course of questioning him, they seized and searched his cell phone, finding a number of digital images, including a photograph of the student holding what appeared to be the firearm found on campus.

When the prosecution sought to use the images on the phone as evidence in the juvenile proceeding, the student moved to suppress them, claiming the search of the phone lacked sufficient justification, was excessively intrusive and required a warrant.  Rejecting the student’s claims, the juvenile court found that he had possessed an assault weapon and it declared him a ward of the court.  

In upholding the decision of the juvenile court, the Court of Appeal relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O.  In that case, the High Court determined that the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness—under all the circumstances—of the search.  The Court set forth a twofold inquiry for determining such reasonableness:  The action must be “justified at its inception” and the search, as actually conducted, must be “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.”

Based on the facts of this case, the Court of Appeal found that the school officials had reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search would turn up evidence that the student had violated—or was violating—either the law, or school rules.  The student physically resisted when school administrators tried to keep him from manipulating his phone and refused to explain why.  His evasive behavior and resistance to school officials “suggested he was either involved in a crime or was trying to hide evidence of one,” the court stated.  The court also noted that T.L.O. “recognized an exception to the warrant and probable cause requirement for searches conducted by public school officials.”

The court’s analysis illustrates the differences between the Supreme Court’s approach in T.L.O. and the additional restrictions imposed by SB 178, which have not been reviewed or tested by any courts.  Under T.L.O., districts may search a student’s personal belongings, without a warrant, if school officials have reasonable suspicion that a student is breaking the law or school rules.  Conversely, SB 178 arguably limits the ability of school officials to search the electronic information on a student’s personal cell phone to circumstances in which the official obtains consent from the student.  Because states are often permitted to enact legislation that is more restrictive than federal law (provided constitutional rights are not violated), district officials may still be held to all SB 178 requirements on future searches of student cell phones.  

Finally, we note that inquiries have been made to the California Legislature seeking confirmation that school districts are considered a “government entity” to which SB 178 fully applies.  We will report on any updates or clarifications that may ensue.  

If you have any questions regarding this matter, please call one of our six offices.

F3 NewsFlash prepared by Kerrie E. McNally, Kimberly A. Smith and John W. Norlin.
Kerrie is a Partner in the F3 Los Angeles and Inland Empire offices.
Kimberly is a Partner in the F3 Los Angeles office.
John is Special Counsel in the F3 San Diego office.

This F3 NewsFlash is a summary only and not legal advice.  We recommend that you consult with legal counsel to determine how this legal development may apply to your specific facts and circumstances.  Information on a free NewsFlash subscription can be found at www.f3law.com.

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