Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules Police Officer Unlawfully Searched School Trespasser who Possessed Gun

In a 5-2 decision delivered today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled a Milton police sergeant improperly patfrisked a man (and searched his backpack) who was trespassing at Milton High School.  The search yielded a loaded gun, which the SJC said should have been suppressed.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Villagran

On March 25, 2015, the Milton police were called to Milton High School to investigate a person who was trying to enter the high school.  When a sergeant arrived, the vice-principal told her the person (later identified as the defendant) had been escorted by school officials into a conference room and he was not a student.  The sergeant noted that the vice-principal and the principal both appeared “rattled” and the principal told the sergeant he believed something was “not right” with the defendant.  The principal further offered an opinion that the defendant had “something on him.”  The sergeant smelled an overwhelming odor of marijuana coming from the defendant and decided to patfrisk him.  She found a quantity of marijuana in his sweatshirt and nearly $3,000 in his pants pocket.  The sergeant then touched the exterior of the defendant’s backpack and felt a hard object that could have been a weapon.  Over the objection of the defendant, the sergeant opened the backpack and found more marijuana, a bottle of booze, a scale, and a loaded handgun.  The defendant was charged with numerous crimes, including illegally carrying a gun.  He filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized from his clothes and his backpack, arguing the sergeant lacked constitutional authority to conduct the search.  A Quincy District Court judge denied the motion and a jury thereafter convicted the defendant of the gun offense.  He appealed.

The Supreme Judicial Court noted the important distinction between the types of searches that occur on school property.  When a school official (such as a principal) conducts a search, it is permissible as long as it is “reasonable under all the circumstances.”  When a police officer conducts the identical search on school property, normal constitutional restrictions apply.  Therefore, the SJC analyzed this case to determine whether the sergeant had reasonable suspicion that the defendant had committed a crime (to justify the patfrisk) and probable cause along with an exception to the warrant requirement (to justify the search of the backpack).  The Court said it was not clear at the time of the patfrisk that the defendant stayed on school property after being ordered to leave (which would have constituted a trespass) and the smell of marijuana did not establish he was committing a criminal offense.  Therefore, because there was no reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity, the sergeant lacked the constitutional authority to patfrisk the defendant.  With respect to the search of the backpack, the Court concluded the facts fell “far short” of a showing of probable cause and there were no exigent factors that would allow for the search absent the defendant’s consent (which he explicitly did not give).  Because the sergeant conducted an illegal search of the defendant’s clothes and his backpack, all of the evidence seized should have been suppressed.  After reversing the defendant’s convictions, the SJC sent the case back to Quincy District Court where the case will be dismissed.

Two justices dissented, arguing that the sergeant had acted reasonably and the motion to suppress was properly denied.  The dissent makes a public policy argument (rather than a legal argument) that a person who enters a school has a reduced expectation of privacy and police officers ought to have expanded authority to search given the potential danger to students.  The dissent correctly asserts the government has a “vital interest” in ensuring the safety of schools and students.  However, it does not offer a persuasive argument for the proposed relaxation of constitutional principles.

Interestingly, if the principal and vice-principal had conducted the search of the defendant instead of a police officer, this case may have turned out differently (as a result of the lower standard needed for a school official to search somebody).  This case represents the sometimes uncomfortable intersection between an individual’s constitutional rights and the desire of all of us to make sure our children are safe when they are in school.