The long-standing test for searching students at school requires that the search must be based on a “reasonable suspicion” that the student violated a school rule or law. A recent criminal decision from the United States Supreme Court, Riley v. California, raises new questions about whether such a search may include the contents of a student’s cell phone.
In Riley, the Court held that the common police practice of searching the contents of a cell phone seized during a person’s arrest without first obtaining a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Although police had been allowed to search certain items possessed by arrestees in the past, the Court found that cell phones are different. “Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse.” Similarly, searching a cell phone is not comparable to searches of an individual’s pockets, which had been allowed previously. Rather, a cell phone search is even more revealing than an exhaustive search of an individual’s home.
Because of the wealth of private information contained on cell phones the Court held that cell phones may not be searched without a warrant. The Court clarified, however, that this new limit on cell phone searches does not restrict police from examining the physical aspects of the phone to ensure that there is not—for example—a razor blade hidden between the phone and its case that could be used as a weapon.
The implications of the Riley decision on schools are uncertain. Whereas the police must obtain a warrant in some circumstances before conducting a search, there is no similar requirement for school officials. Accordingly, the Riley case did not change the longstanding rule that a school search is valid if a school official has reasonable suspicion that the student violated a school rule or law and that the search is reasonable in its scope. Nonetheless, the Court’s broad language in Riley and its finding that cell phones warrant special privacy protection provide a warning that closer scrutiny may be paid to searches of cell phones and other electronic devices than to searches of other student belongings, such as wallets, purses, and pockets. School districts should carefully review their cell phone search policies and practices to set guidelines for administrators about when such searches are defensible.