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Name: In re Rafael C.
Case #: A143376
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 1 DCA
Division: 5
Opinion Date: 03/25/2016
Subsequent History: Review granted 6/29/2016: S234295

Warrantless search of minor’s cell phone by school authorities was proper where school officials had a reasonable suspicion the minor was involved in bringing a gun on campus. In the course of investigating an assault weapon found on a high school campus, the school administrators searched the minor’s cell phone. They found pictures of the minor holding the gun. In defense of a Welfare and Institutions Code section 602 petition alleging possession of an assault weapon, the minor unsuccessfully sought to suppress the cell phone evidence. The juvenile court found the allegation true. He appealed. Held: Affirmed. “School officials may conduct a search of the student’s person and personal effects based on a reasonable suspicion that the search will disclose evidence that the student is in violation or has violated the law or a school rule.” (In re Cody S. (2004) 121 Cal.App.4th 86, 91.) The legality of the search of a student depends on the reasonableness, under all of the circumstances, of the search. The search must be justified at its inception and the scope of the search must reasonably relate to the circumstances that justified the search in the first place. Here, the minor’s association with the person who brought the weapon to school, in combination with his evasive and suspicious behavior and resistance to school officials, suggested he was either involved in a crime or was trying to conceal one. An assault weapon on campus presents a great threat. School officials had reasonable suspicion to search the minor’s person and property.

School administrators did not need a warrant to search the minor’s cell phone. Relying on Riley v. California (2014) 134 S.Ct. 2473, the minor claimed that the search of his cell phone was illegal absent a search warrant. However, in Riley, the U.S. Supreme Court expressly based its holding on the applicability of the warrant requirement. In New Jersey v. TLO (1985) 469 U.S. 325, the Court recognized an exception to the need for probable cause and a warrant for searches conducted by school officials. The Court in Riley was addressing warrantless searches of adult arrestees, not minors. In addition, the Riley Court acknowledged there may be threatening circumstances that justify the warrantless search of a cell phone. That was the case here, as the gun presented an imminent threat to student safety. Finally, when the trial court denied the minor’s suppression motion, Riley had not yet been decided. Thus, school officials conducted the search in reasonable reliance on binding appellate precedent. (Davis v. U.S. (2011) 131 S.Ct. 2419.)

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: