HAMILTON – A judge’s ruling in the case of a Florence-Carlton High School student cited for marijuana possession could have major ramifications for how drug searches are done on school property in Montana.
The student’s case was set to go before a judge this past week. But on Oct. 6 Ravalli County District Court Judge James Haynes issued an order granting requests from his attorney that tossed out the searches that found the drugs leading to his citations, and dismissed the court case.
On Dec. 17, 2015, Florence-Carlton High School hired a private canine drug detection company called Interquest Detection Canines, which conducted a sweep of the school’s parking lot. The dog alerted on the student's vehicle and he was brought outside by the principal.
When asked, the student – then 16 – allowed a search of his car, which found plastic bags of marijuana and two pipes as well as cigarillos and an e-cigarette that were inside a hat underneath his driver’s seat, according to court documents. The drugs were turned over to a sheriff’s deputy and the youth was cited.
Prosecutors said the search was allowed in part because of the school’s drug-free policy. Deputy County Attorney Meghann Paddock also cited a U.S. Supreme Court case, New Jersey v. T.L.O., that said a school search can be deemed constitutional by "its reasonableness in light of the circumstances."
"Here, the search was initiated by school officials attempting to enforce a weapon and drug-free learning environment, and the scope was justified by the circumstances," Paddock wrote.
However, the case she cited was about a search of the possessions of a student found smoking a cigarette, and also stated the school had to have a reasonable suspicion to initiate a search.
In his order, Haynes said the search of the vehicle was unlawful, adding that to conduct such a search the school would have needed either particular information that the student had drugs, or that there was a significant problem with drugs at the school that needed the search with the dog.
“Unfortunately, there exists no evidence in the record in this case before the Court that the school district’s formal search policy is anything other than a pro-active good idea,” Haynes wrote.
In a motion to have the evidence suppressed, the student’s attorney Minot Maser took issue both with the broad nature of the drug sweep as well as the contention that his client’s consent to the vehicle search was voluntary, saying school policy holds that he could have been punished for disobeying an instruction from a staff member.
Maser said the school board had considered the drug sweeps as a preventive measure or deterrence, rather than regularly being successful in finding drugs.
“I know we want drug-free school environments, but we’re going out into the parking lot, some of these cars belong to the parents,” he said Friday. “You can’t just do dragnet searches without an individual cause or a bigger drug issue.”
Maser said the Montana Supreme Court hasn’t specifically taken up the issue of school searches, and that this would be a case of first impression if the Ravalli County Attorney’s Office chooses to appeal Haynes’ ruling. Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright did not respond to a request for comment.
Maser noted in his court filing that the man who owns the drug dog search company used in Florence is also hired by 106 school districts across the state for similar searches.
Missoula attorney Elizabeth Kaleva, who represents school districts across the state, said she will be keeping tabs on what happens with the student’s case, and that Florence-Carlton School District might submit an amicus brief if it is appealed.
With only Haynes’ order, the restrictions on school searches are only binding in Ravalli County, and Kaleva said she has sent a memo out to the school districts there that she works for.
“What the court is saying is you need reasonable suspicion to even use the dog,” she said. “I’ve told them I don’t believe it’s right to continue to use them at this time.”
Kaleva said she would also be talking to school districts around Montana about the possible ramifications of the case next week during a pair of statewide education conferences.
In his order, Haynes similarly suppressed drug evidence collected just over a week before the search at the school that the student had also been cited for. On Dec. 7, 2015, a sheriff’s deputy saw him sitting in his car in a cul-de-sac in Florence late at night, according to documents filed in the case. The deputy, who reported thinking the vehicle “looked out of place,” parked his patrol car nearby and shone a spotlight on the student, then got out and walked toward the vehicle. The student opened his door, and the deputy smelled marijuana coming from inside, according to the documents.
The officer eventually seized two jars containing the drug and issued a misdemeanor citation.
Maser asserted the marijuana was found during an illegal seizure, where his client was stopped with no reason to believe he had committed a crime.
Prosecutors countered, citing a Montana Supreme Court opinion from another case that held an officer stopping and shining light on a vehicle did not mean the person wasn’t free to drive away because it was not an actual police stop. Maser said the situation was different because the deputy got out and walked up to the vehicle.
“It would be nuts to fire up your engine and leave,” he said Friday.
Haynes' order said the deputy had stopped the student without reasonable suspicion, and that any evidence seized as a result could not be used to convict him.
The student's "person and vehicle, at that point, was effectively stopped from leaving and deemed ‘seized,’” he wrote. “The facts fail to establish any suspicion (the student) had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime.”