Legal Update: Riley v. California’s Potential Impact on School Districts

On June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Riley v. California that police may not search cell phones incident to an arrest, without a warrant, unless another exception to the warrant rules applies (e.g., exigent circumstances).  Generally, police do not need a warrant to search a person they are arresting, a rule intended to protect the safety of the police officers and to prevent the destruction of evidence.

The Court’s decision emphasized the pervasive and private nature of cell phone data.  More than 90 percent of American adults carry cell phones, and the phones contain “a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives, from the mundane to the intimate.”  The Court recognized that, “[m]odern cell phones are not just another technological convenience.  With all they contain and all they reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life.  The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought.”  Accordingly, warrants are generally required to search cell phones, with warrantless searches allowed only as rare exceptions.  “Allowing the police to scrutinize such records on a routine basis is quite different from allowing them to search a personal item or two in the occasional case.”

In light of Riley, school administrators should think twice before searching a student’s cell phone.  Search warrants are not required for administrators to search students in a school setting.  Instead, the legality of a search depends simply on whether the search was reasonable, under all of the circumstances.  Under ordinary circumstances, the search of a student by a school administrator is reasonable if (1) there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence of the student’s violation of the law or school rules; and (2) the search measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the student’s age, gender, and the nature of the infraction.  New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) 469 U.S. 325.

In Riley, the Court recognized that cell phones contain an abundance of sensitive personal information, a digital record of nearly every aspect of their users’ lives.  This is a heavy weight when balancing the student’s legitimate expectations of privacy against the school’s need to maintain discipline in the school environment.  Before searching a student’s cell phone, school administrators should make sure that their need to search the phone outweighs such a substantial privacy interest. Certainly, a search of a student’s cell phone should not be the norm when a student is suspected of violating school rules.

When searching a student’s cell phone, school administrators should:

  • Have an individualized suspicion that the cell phone contains evidence that the student violated school rules;
  • Limit the search to those types of data indicated by the individualized suspicion;
  • Determine that the nature of the suspected violation justifies the intrusion on the student’s privacy; and
  • Make sure that the search is necessary for educational reasons, and that the administrator is not acting at the request of law enforcement officials for law enforcement purposes.

School districts should also review their policies on student searches to make sure that they provide appropriate guidance to school administrators.

For further questions on this update or any other education law issues please contact James Meeker or Mary Hernandez at 510-695-2802