Cal.1st: Warrantless school search of cell phone on RS justified by T.L.O.

A warrantless search of cell phone in a school was justified by reasonable suspicion under T.L.O. that the student had been in possession of a firearm found at school. There was sufficient exigency for Riley under T.L.O. Alternatively, the search occurred before Riley, and no warrant was required for a cell phone in California before that. In re Rafael C., 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 229 (1st Dist. March 25, 2016):

B. The Search Was Justified at its Inception

Minor contends the search of his cell phone was not justified at its inception because there was no reasonable suspicion he was guilty of wrongdoing. We disagree. The evidence before the juvenile court showed a firearm and its magazine cartridge were seized from a trash can where they had been discarded. Two students who were believed to have been in possession of the firearm were brought into an administrator’s office for questioning. Minor was present in the hallway outside the office where the student with the gun was detained, and he was the only person walking back and forth outside the office. Minor entered the office, and he lingered at the door even after being told to leave. When a school official asked Minor to come into the office, Minor walked away quickly and ignored the official’s order to stop. After he was taken into a vice principal’s office, asked what he was doing outside the office and why he had ignored the official’s directions, Minor immediately started fingering the cell phone in his pocket. He then physically resisted when school administrators tried to keep him from manipulating his phone and refused to explain why he had resisted them. Minor was also acquainted with the student who had brought the concealed weapon onto campus, and that student had triggered an incident himself by trying to communicate with someone on a cell phone during his own questioning.3

Based on these facts, the school officials had “reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search [would] turn up evidence that the student ha[d] violated or [was] violating either the law or the rules of the school.” (William V., supra, 111 Cal.App.4th at p. 1469.) This is particularly true when one considers the gravity of the situation that initially gave rise to the search—the discovery of a firearm and magazine on school grounds. (See In re J.D., supra, 225 Cal.App.4th at pp. 716-717 [upholding as reasonable locker search and other measures taken by school officials after receiving report that student involved in earlier shooting was present on campus].) “The need of schools to keep weapons off campuses is substantial. Guns … pose a threat of death or serious injury to students and staff. The California Constitution, article I, section 28, subdivision [(f)(1)], provides that students and staff of public schools have ‘the inalienable right to attend campuses which are safe, secure and peaceful.'” (In re Latasha W. (1998) 60 Cal.App.4th 1524, 1527.) Here, the facts outlined above—particularly Minor’s evasive behavior and resistance to school officials—suggested he was either involved in a crime or was trying to hide evidence of one. (In re H.M. (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 136, 144 [minor’s unusual, suspicious behavior and flight from scene “strongly suggested criminal activity was afoot”].) The juvenile court could properly find the search justified at its inception.

C. No Warrant Was Required

Minor also contends school officials were required to obtain a warrant before searching the data on his cell phone. In a brief, one-paragraph argument to the juvenile court, Minor asserted public school officials may not search a cell phone without a warrant. He relied on the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California (2014) 134 S.Ct. 2473 (Riley). At the hearing on the motion to suppress, however, Minor’s trial counsel did not mention the warrant requirement, arguing instead that the search was not justified at its inception and was unreasonable in scope. Trial counsel also argued that T.L.O. “sets out the two-pronged determination of reasonableness[.]” Thus, while Minor’s contentions on appeal focus on Riley, his counsel did not bring that case up at the hearing on Minor’s motion to suppress. The People therefore contend Minor has forfeited this argument. Even if the argument has been properly preserved for appeal, it is unavailing.

Minor’s argument suffers from a number of flaws. First, in contending that a warrant was required before school officials could search the contents of his cell phone, Minor relies heavily on Riley. There, however, the United States Supreme Court explicitly based its holding on the applicability of the warrant requirement. (Riley, supra, 134 S.Ct. at p. 2493.) In contrast, T.L.O. “recognized an exception to the warrant and probable cause requirement for searches conducted by public school officials.” (In re Joseph G. (1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 1735, 1739, italics added.) As the United States Supreme Court explained, “[t]he warrant requirement, in particular, is unsuited to the school environment: requiring a teacher to obtain a warrant before searching a child suspected of an infraction of school rules (or of the criminal law) would unduly interfere with the maintenance of the swift and informal disciplinary procedures needed in the schools. Just as we have in other cases dispensed with the warrant requirement when ‘the burden of obtaining a warrant is likely to frustrate the governmental purpose behind the search,’ [citation], we hold today that school officials need not obtain a warrant before searching a student who is under their authority.” (T.L.O., supra, 469 U.S. at p. 340; see also Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton (1995) 515 U.S. 646, 656 [“Fourth Amendment rights … are different in public schools than elsewhere; the ‘reasonableness’ inquiry cannot disregard the schools’ custodial and tutelary responsibility for children.”].) By overlooking this key distinction between T.L.O. and Riley, Minor fails to satisfy his burden of demonstrating error. (Cf. People v. Williams (1999) 20 Cal.4th 119, 129 [in making motion to suppress, defendants must do more than assert that search was without a warrant; defendants must also show why no exception to warrant requirement applies].)

Second, as the People point out, Riley concerned “the reasonableness of a warrantless search incident to a lawful arrest.” (Riley, supra, 134 S.Ct. at p. 2482.) The individuals subjected to the searches in Riley were both adults, and neither arrest occurred in the school context. (See id. at pp. 2480, 2481-2482 [one petitioner searched in conjunction with arrest for firearms possession after traffic stop and the other searched after arrest for distribution of crack cocaine].) Although Minor admits “the matter of a school search was not before the Riley Court,” he offers us no case applying Riley to the search of a high school student’s cell phone. Riley did not address the particular factual situation before us, and cases are not authority for propositions not considered therein. (E.g., People v. Knoller (2007) 41 Cal.4th 139, 154-155.)

Third, quite apart from the absence of authority on the point, Riley itself acknowledged certain “fact-specific threats may justify a warrantless search of cell phone data.” (Riley, supra, 134 S.Ct. at p. 2494.) The Riley court alluded to hypothetical situations such as “a suspect texting an accomplice who, it is feared, is preparing to detonate a bomb[.]” (Ibid.) Here, school officials were confronted by a situation in which a loaded firearm had been discovered on school property. They were concerned Minor could be using his cell phone to communicate with students who might possess another firearm or weapon the officials did not know about. In these circumstances, “‘[t]he special need for an immediate response to behavior that threatens … the safety of schoolchildren and teachers … justifies the Court in excepting school searches from the warrant and probable-cause requirement, and in applying a standard determined by balancing the relevant interests.'” (In re J.D., supra, 225 Cal.App.4th at p. 715, quoting T.L.O., supra, 469 U.S. at p. 353 (conc. opn. of Blackmun, J.).)

Finally, the search in this case occurred before the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Riley. The People argue that prior to Riley, T.L.O. furnished the standard for judging the reasonableness of any search conducted on a student on school grounds. Thus, they contend the school officials in this case conducted the challenged search “in objectively reasonable reliance on binding appellate precedent.” (Davis v. U.S. (2011) 131 S.Ct. 2419, 2423-2424 (Davis).) The search “therefore was not subject to the exclusionary rule.” (People v. Youn (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 571, 573.) We agree with the People. Even if we assume the holding in Riley applies to this situation, we decline to hold the school officials were bound by a standard that did not yet exist.

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