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Student can sue for cellphone search

With August haze giving way to September school daze, here’s a reading assignment for school administrators:  a new case letting a student sue a principal for searching the student’s cellphone.

Acting on a report from two parents about a “longhaired” student smoking marijuana on a school bus headed for Hermitage High School in Richmond, school officials summoned W.S.G. to Associate Principal Diane Saunders’ office.

The student alleged he did not know why he was called into the office. He turned out his pockets. Assistant Principal Robert A. Turpin III patted down the student and searched his backpack, shoes and pockets. Saunders searched the student’s Vaseline jar, a sandwich wrapper and cellphone. The administrators found no marijuana and sent the young man back to class.

He and his parents sued the two administrators and the school board.

On Aug. 5, Richmond U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims against Henrico County School Board and Turpin. The pat-down and search of W.S.G.’s backpack, shoes and pockets all were reasonable, as was the search of the Vaseline jar and sandwich wrapper. The student could have had drugs hidden in these places, Gibney wrote.

But the alleged cellphone search was out of bounds, because it was not reasonably related to the objective of the search, Gibney said in Gallimore v. Henrico County School Board.

Gibney refused to dismiss the student’s cellphone Fourth Amendment claim on qualified immunity grounds.

“Common sense dictates that a school administrator cannot claim to look for marijuana and then look through a student’s cell phone. No reasonable school administrator could believe that searching a student’s cell phone would result in finding marijuana – the purpose for which the administrator imitated the search,” Gibney wrote.

Saunders could beef up her qualified immunity defense in a motion for summary judgment. Gibney said he wasn’t suggesting Saunders did not have reasonable cause to check the cell phone’s contents.

“She could have had reason to suspect that text messages or telephone calls stored in the phone would disclose a marijuana supplier or purchaser in the school,” he wrote. But the current state of the record did not support the search, the judge said.

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