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Virginia Student May Sue a Principal for a Cell Phone Search

A Virginia federal district court recently ruled that a student has the right to sue his high school principal after the school official conducted a search of the student’s cell phone.

search%20cell%20phone%2061969338-001.jpgThe student, identified in the lawsuit only as W.S.G., was called into the principal’s office on suspicion of marijuana use. Two parents reported use of marijuana on a school bus by a long haired male student. W.S.G. vaguely fit the description given by the parents, so Assistant Principal Robert A. Turpin III and Associate Principal Diane Saunders’ called him to Saunders’ office.

W.S.G. wasn’t certain why he was summoned, but he complied with the principals’ search of his pockets and backpack. Turpin also performed a pat down while Saunders reviewed a Vaseline jar and a sandwich wrapper.

The federal district court agrees that school officials were justified in searching these items. However, the judge believes that the principals erred when they searched W.S.G.’s cell phone. Rationale behind the finding concludes that W.S.G. could have concealed marijuana in his pockets, backpack, the Vaseline jar or the sandwich wrapper. However, drugs could not be hidden in the cell phone. In the judge’s opinion, Saunders’ search of the cell phone was a violation of the student’s Fourth Amendment rights.

W.S.G.’s initial complaint made other allegations that the judge does not believe were justified. The defendant alleged a charge of assault and battery based on the pat down he received, an idea that the judge rejects outright. Moreover, W.S.G.’s assertions that the Henrico County School Board was liable for failing to properly train personnel on search procedures were judged to be groundless. The judge pointed out that the defendant had failed to prove a pattern of deliberate indifference on the part of the school board.

Despite the finding that the cell phone search was likely unreasonable, the judge said that Saunders might have had reason to conduct the search if she thought she would find evidence of text messages or other communications regarding a supplier. With the evidence on hand, he could not conclude that she had a proper incentive for the search.