The Associated Press
The state Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a student backpack search in 2009 at a Bellevue high school was illegal because the officer who conducted the search and found a weapon was acting as a police officer at the time.
The court said that search did not qualify for a school search exemption and the weapon should not have been allowed as evidence in the young man’s trial. On a vote of 6-3, the decision overturns an appeals court decision.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Susan Owens, said Michael Fry, the Bellevue police officer who conducted the search, was paid by the school district to be a school resource officer.
But Owens writes that Fry was acting as a police officer at the time of the search at Robinswood High School, an alternative school which has since closed. He had arrested the student, Jamar Meneese, for possession of a bag of marijuana, which he was holding in his hand in a school bathroom.
Fry requested a patrol car to pick up Meneese and while waiting for the car to arrive, became suspicious that his backpack may contain “additional contraband because it had a padlock on the handles.”
Fry attempted to search the backpack without removing the padlock, without success. Meneese told the officer he didn’t have a key with him, so Fry handcuffed him, searched the student, found the key, opened the backpack and discovered an air pistol, also known as a BB gun.
The majority ruled that because this search was done by a police officer without a warrant, the air pistol should not have been allowed as evidence in Meneese’s trial.
The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Debra Stephens, expresses serious concerns about the impact of the court ruling on school safety.
Stephens writes that Thursday’s decision will place school personnel at greater risk of harm. The decision will encourage teachers and school officials, who generally are untrained in proper pat down procedures or in neutralizing dangerous weapons, to conduct a search of a student suspected of carrying a dangerous weapon on school grounds without the assistance of a school liaison officer, she wrote.
She argues that just because Fry was wearing a police uniform and driving a Bellevue police vehicle did not mean he was acting as a police officer during his regular duties at the school.
“Schools will now be dissuaded from using SROs to detect and intercept violations of school rules or the law. Instead, teachers and other school administrators who have reasonable suspicion, but lack probable cause, must conduct such searches themselves,” Stephens wrote.