G.C. v. Owensboro Public Schools
By Michelle Sohn– Edited by Sarah Jeong
G.C. v. Owensboro Public Schools, No. 11-6476, (6th Cir. Mar. 28, 2013)
In a 2-1 decision, the Sixth Circuit reversed the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. The lower court had granted summary judgment for Owensboro, holding that the school’s search of a student’s cell phone did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
The Sixth Circuit held that the school’s search of G.C.’s cell phone was an unreasonable search and seizure. In so holding, the court stated that despite the school’s knowledge of G.C.’s prior behavioral problems, school officials had no specific reason at the time of the search to believe that he was engaging in an unlawful activity. Although using a cell phone in class contravened the school’s policy, “using a cell phone on school grounds [did] not automatically trigger an essentially unlimited right enabling a school official to search any content stored on the phone.” G.C.,slip op. at 13.
EducationWeek provides a thorough analysis of the Fourth Amendment issue. The New York Times editorial board lauded the decision, writing that the Sixth Circuit “correctly ruled” and “wisely interpreted” the scope of a reasonable search as applied to students.
After numerous other disciplinary incidents, including ones where G.C. admitted drug use and suicidal thoughts to school administrators, G.C. was caught texting in class. As this was a direct violation of school policy, G.C.’s teacher confiscated the cell phone and brought it to the assistant principal. The assistant principal, who was aware of G.C.’s previous admission of drug use and depression, read four text messages on the phone to see whether he was in danger of harming himself.
The court held that the assistant principal’s search of G.C.’s phone failed to satisfy the first prong of the two-part test laid out by the Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O, 469 U.S. 325 (1985). In holding as it did, the court reasoned that, first, a student search must be justified at its inception, and second, the search must be conducted within the scope of the reasons that prompted the search in the first place. The court rejected Owensboro’s argument that the decision to search G.C.’s cell phone could be based on knowledge of his prior behavior. The court declared that general background knowledge of a student’s tendencies did not “enable a school official to search a student’s cell phone when a search would otherwise be unwarranted.” G.C.,slip op. at 14.
Judge Norris dissented. The dissent would have held that the assistant principal’s search of the cell phone was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The dissent reasoned that under all the circumstances—including the assistant principal’s knowledge of G.C.’s disciplinary record—the search was reasonable.
The Sixth Circuit’s decision is novel in that it looks at a student’s right against unreasonable search and seizure to cell phones. The decision significantly narrows the scope of circumstances in which a school official can legally conduct a search of a student’s cell phone. As JDSupra points out, this means that schools must “tread carefully when searching a student’s mobile device.”
Michelle Sohn is a 1L at Harvard Law School.