SEATTLE — The Washington 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 the 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 6-3 vote, the decision overturns an appeals court ruling.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Susan Owens, said the Bellevue police officer who conducted the search was paid by the school district to be a school resource officer.
But Owens writes that the officer, Michael Fry, was acting as a police officer at the time of the search at Robinswood High School, an alternative school that has since closed. He had arrested the student, Jamar Meneese, for possessing a bag of marijuana, which Meneese 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. He was convicted of unlawfully carrying a dangerous weapon on school grounds and for possessing a controlled substance.
The attorney who filed the appeal applauded the court for its efforts to keep exemptions to the warrant requirement narrowly tailored.
“It needed to be reeled in,” said Seattle attorney Christopher Gibson. “There just isn’t this blanket option to just go and search.”
He gave credit for the success of the appeal to Meneese’s trail attorney, George Eppler, who argued the BB gun should not have been allowed as evidence and established the record that helped the majority reach this decision.
Eppler said he hasn’t been in touch with Meneese but was happy the young man finally got some good news from the courts.
“I told him all along that he had a very strong constitutional case, that his civil liberties were violated,” Eppler said.
The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Debra Stephens, expressed serious concerns about the ruling’s impact on school safety.
Stephens wrote 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 argued that just because Fry was wearing a police uniform and driving a police vehicle did not mean he was acting as a police officer during his regular duties at the school.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, whose office represented the state in this case, also expressed concerns about the potential impact on school safety and said he would look into whether he should pursue a legislative option.
“The distinction between a school resource officer and a school staff member is not significant in the context of school safety,” Satterberg said in a statement. “Search warrants are not a practical option when a student is suspected of carrying a gun to school. Action has to be taken immediately for the safety of all.”
Kevin Quinn, president of the National Association of School Resource Officers, called the Washington ruling interesting and said he didn’t know if it would influence policies or court decisions in other states.
Only Washington and Georgia put restrictions on a school resource officer’s ability to search students within a school setting, said Quinn, a resource officer at a Chandler, Ariz., high school.
“I guess only time will tell” if the idea will spread, Quinn said.