Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Third District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Will County, the Hon. William Penn, Judge, presiding.
Chief Justice Bilandic delivered the opinion of the court: Justice Nickels, dissenting: Justices Harrison and McMORROW join in this dissent.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bilandic
CHIEF JUSTICE BILANDIC delivered the opinion of the court:
Following a bench trial in the circuit court of Will County, defendant, Kenneth Dilworth, was convicted of unlawful possession of a controlled substance (cocaine) with intent to deliver while on school property (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 56 1/2, par. 1407(b)(2)). The circuit court had earlier denied defendant's motion to suppress evidence. The appellate court reversed defendant's conviction, finding that his motion to suppress evidence should have been granted. (267 Ill. App. 3d 155, 640 N.E.2d 1009, 203 Ill. Dec. 859.) We allowed the State's petition for leave to appeal (145 Ill. 2d R. 315) and now reverse the appellate court.
Defendant was a 15-year-old student at the Joliet Township High Schools Alternate School. The Alternate School is unlike a regular public school in that only students with behavioral disorders attend it. A little more than 100 students attended the school at the relevant times.
According to the Alternate School handbook, which was admitted into evidence, the goal of the school's program is to create an environment that will allow students to modify their behavior in a positive direction. Students who improve their behavior are allowed to return to regular school. The school staff was listed as consisting of 11 teachers, four para-professionals, one social worker, one psychologist, one counselor, and, significantly, one liaison officer.
The liaison officer was Detective Francis Ruettiger. Ruettiger was a police officer employed by the Joliet police department and was assigned full-time to the Alternate School as a member of its staff. His primary purpose at the school was to prevent criminal activity. If he discovered criminal activity, he had the authority to arrest the offender and transport the offender to the police station. Ruettiger also handled some disciplinary problems. Like the teachers, Ruettiger was authorized to give a detention, but not a suspension. Only the school principal and the director could suspend a student.
On November 18, 1992, two teachers asked Ruettiger to search a student, Deshawn Weeks, for possession of drugs. The teachers informed Ruettiger that they had overheard Weeks telling other students that he had sold some drugs and would bring more drugs with him to school the following day. The next day, Ruettiger searched Weeks' person in his office and found nothing. He then escorted Weeks back to his locker.
Defendant and Weeks met at their neighboring lockers. According to Ruettiger, the two adolescents began talking and giggling "like they put one over on [him]." Ruettiger further testified that they turned toward him and they were "looking, laughing at [him] like [he] was played for a fool." Ruettiger noticed a flashlight in defendant's hand and immediately thought that it might contain drugs. He grabbed the flashlight from defendant, unscrewed the top, and observed a bag containing a white chunky substance underneath the flashlight batteries. The substance later tested positive for the presence of cocaine. Defendant ran from the scene, but was captured by Ruettiger and transported to the police station. While there, defendant gave a statement admitting that he intended to sell the cocaine because he was tired of being poor.
Ruettiger explained that he had two reasons for seizing and searching the flashlight. He was suspicious that the flashlight contained drugs. Secondly, Ruettiger believed it was a violation of school rules to possess a flashlight on school grounds because a flashlight is a "blunt instrument." The school's disciplinary guidelines, of which every student must be informed when they enroll, prohibited the possession of "any object that can be construed to be a weapon." Ruettiger had never seen a student with a flashlight at the school before. He admitted, however, that students were never specifically informed that flashlights were prohibited. Also, he did not consider a flashlight to be "contraband per se."
Ruettiger further related that he had daily contact with each student at the Alternate School. Although he did not talk with each student individually every day, he did go into each classroom. Prior to arresting defendant, Ruettiger saw defendant during school several times a day and had always gotten along with him pretty well. On one occasion, two weeks before the arrest, a teacher had suspected defendant of selling drugs in class and asked Ruettiger to search him. Ruettiger did so and found nothing. At that time, defendant told Ruettiger that he did not have any drugs, but named another student who did. A search of the other student revealed marijuana and resulted in the student's arrest.
Defendant's teacher, Danica Grabavoy, testified that sometime soon after defendant was enrolled in the Alternate School, she reviewed the entire school handbook with him and his guardian. Among other things, the handbook explains the school's policies and disciplinary guidelines. On a page entitled "Alternate School Search Procedures," the handbook states:
"To protect the security, safety, and rights of other students and the staff at the Alternate School, we will search students. This search may include the student's person, his/her belongings, and school locker. Search procedures may result from suspicions generated from direct observation or from information received from a third party.
Search is done to protect the safety of students. However, if in the process any illegal items or controlled substances are found in a search, these items and the student will be turned over to the police." (Emphasis in original.)
Prior to trial, defendant moved to suppress the evidence found in his flashlight. He argued that Ruettiger's seizure and search of the flashlight violated the fourth and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution. The circuit court conducted a hearing in which it denied the motion. The court found that Ruettiger was acting as an agent for the staff of the Alternate School when he seized and searched the flashlight. Noting that the school staff must deal with difficult students, the court held that the proper fourth amendment standard to apply in this case was the reasonable suspicion standard for searches of students by school officials ( New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), 469 U.S. 325, 83 L. Ed. 2d 720, 105 S. Ct. 733), rather than the general standard of probable cause. Alternatively, the court found that even if Ruettiger was acting as a police officer, he had "reasonable cause" to believe that the flashlight contained contraband.
Defendant was tried as an adult in a stipulated bench trial. The circuit court found defendant guilty and sentenced him as an adult to the minimum four-year term of imprisonment.
As previously noted, the appellate court reversed defendant's conviction outright based on its holding that his motion to suppress evidence should have been granted. The appellate court agreed with the lower court that the reasonable suspicion standard applied; however, it found that Ruettiger did not have reasonable suspicion to seize and search the flashlight. In the appellate court's opinion, Ruettiger had only a mere "hunch" that the flashlight contained drugs.
The State contends that the circuit court properly denied defendant's motion to suppress evidence for two reasons: (1) Ruettiger properly seized the flashlight as contraband because defendant's possession of the flashlight violated the school's disciplinary guidelines; and (2) Ruettiger had reasonable suspicion, as well as probable cause if required, to seize and search the flashlight. Defendant responds that Ruettiger's seizure and search of his flashlight contravened the fourth and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution.
Generally, a circuit court's ruling on a motion to suppress evidence is subject to reversal only if manifestly erroneous. ( People v. James (1994), 163 Ill. 2d 302, 310, 206 Ill. Dec. 190, 645 N.E.2d 195.) Here, however, neither the facts nor the credibility of witnesses is questioned. We therefore find it proper to conduct de novo review in this cause. See James, 163 Ill. 2d at 310, quoting People v. Foskey (1990), 136 Ill. 2d 66, 76, 143 Ill. Dec. 257, 554 N.E.2d 192.
The fourth amendment to the United States Constitution provides that the Federal government shall not violate "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures ***." (U.S. Const., amend. IV.) The fundamental purpose of this amendment is to safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions by governmental officials. ( Camara v. Municipal Court (1967), 387 U.S. 523, 528, 18 L. Ed. 2d 930, 935, 87 S. Ct. 1727, 1730.) The due process clause of the fourteenth amendment (U.S. Const., amend. XIV) extended this constitutional guarantee to searches and seizures conducted by State officials. Elkins v. United States (1960), 364 U.S. 206, 213, 4 L. Ed. 2d 1669, 1675, 80 S. Ct. 1437, 1442.
In New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), 469 U.S. 325, 83 L. Ed. 2d 720, 105 S. Ct. 733, the United States Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of searches of students by teachers and school officials. In T.L.O., a teacher discovered T.L.O., a 14-year-old high school student, smoking cigarettes in a lavatory in violation of a school rule. The teacher took T.L.O. to the principal's office, where she was questioned by an assistant vice principal. T.L.O. denied that she had been smoking and claimed that she did not smoke at all. The school official demanded to see her purse, opened it, and found a pack of cigarettes. As the school official reached into the purse for the cigarettes, he noticed a package of cigarette rolling papers. In his experience, the possession of rolling papers by high school students was closely associated with the use of marijuana. A further, thorough search of the purse revealed a small amount of marijuana, a pipe, a number of empty plastic bags, a substantial quantity of one-dollar bills, a list of names of students who apparently owed T.L.O. money, and two letters implicating T.L.O. in marijuana dealing. The school official turned this evidence over to the police after notifying T.L.O.'s mother. T.L.O.'s mother accompanied T.L.O. to police headquarters, where T.L.O. confessed to selling marijuana at the high school. The State subsequently brought delinquency charges against her in juvenile court. T.L.O. sought to suppress the evidence of marijuana dealing, claiming the search was unconstitutional.
The Court initially determined that the fourth amendment to the United States Constitution applies to searches of students conducted by public school officials. ( T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 333-36, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 729-31, 105 S. Ct. at 738-40.) In doing so, the Court rejected the argument that public school officials are exempt from the dictates of the fourth amendment because they act in loco parentis in their dealings with students. In loco parentis, which literally means "in the place of a parent" (Black's Law Dictionary 403 (5th ed. 1983)), is a common law doctrine that means a parent "'may ... delegate part of his parental authority, during his life, to the tutor or schoolmaster of his child; who is then in loco parentis, and has such a portion of the power of the parent committed to his charge, viz. that of restraint and correction, as may be necessary to answer the purposes for which he is employed.'" (Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995), 515 U.S. , , 132 L. Ed. 2d 564, 575, 115 S. Ct. 2386, 2391, quoting W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 441 (1769).) The Court found such a view of things to be "not entirely 'consonant with compulsory education laws'" and to be inconsistent with its earlier decisions treating school officials as State actors for purposes of the due process and free speech clauses. ( T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 336, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 731, 105 S. Ct. at 740, quoting Ingraham v. Wright (1977), 430 U.S. 651, 662, 51 L. Ed. 2d 711, 724, 97 S. Ct. 1401, 1407.) Nonetheless, the Court emphasized that the State has a substantial interest in maintaining a proper educational environment for the schoolchildren entrusted to its custody and tutelage. "Even in schools that have been spared the most severe disciplinary problems, the preservation of order and a proper educational environment requires close supervision of schoolchildren, as well as the enforcement of rules against conduct that would be perfectly permissible if undertaken by an adult." T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 339, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 733, 105 S. Ct. at 741.
The Court explicitly recognized that, under the fourth and fourteenth amendments, schoolchildren have legitimate expectations of privacy in possessions brought with them to school. "In short, schoolchildren may find it necessary to carry with them a variety of legitimate, noncontraband items, and there is no reason to conclude that they have necessarily waived all rights to privacy in such items merely by bringing them onto school grounds." T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 339, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 733, 105 S. Ct. at 741.
In balancing the competing interests of a school's need to maintain a proper educational environment and the schoolchild's legitimate expectations of privacy, the Court held that teachers and school officials do not need a warrant before searching a student and need not adhere to the requirement that searches be based on probable cause. "Rather, the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search." ( T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 341, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 734, 105 S. Ct. at 742.) The Court set forth a twofold inquiry for determining the reasonableness of any search. First, the action must be "'justified at its inception'"; second, the search as actually conducted must be "'reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.'" T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 341, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 734, 105 S. Ct. at 743, quoting Terry v. Ohio (1968), 392 U.S. 1, 20, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889, 905, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 1879.
Applying the test to the facts, the Court found that the school official's search of T.L.O.'s purse for cigarettes was reasonable, given the teacher's report that T.L.O. had been smoking in the lavatory in violation of school rules and that T.L.O. denied doing so. The Court characterized the school official's suspicion that T.L.O. had cigarettes in her purse as "the sort of 'common-sense conclusion about human behavior' upon which 'practical people'-including government officials-are entitled to rely," rather than "an 'inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or "hunch."'" ( T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 346, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 737, 105 S. Ct. at 745, quoting United States v. Cortez (1981), 449 U.S. 411, 418, 66 L. Ed. 2d 621, 629, 101 S. Ct. 690, 695, and Terry, 392 U.S. at 27, 20 L. Ed. 2d at 909, 88 S. Ct. at 1883.) The Court proceeded to find the further search for marijuana reasonable as well, given the school official's observation of rolling papers. Consequently the Court concluded that the evidence of marijuana dealing should have been admitted in T.L.O.'s juvenile delinquency proceedings.
The State first argues that Ruettiger properly seized defendant's flashlight based solely on the Alternate School's disciplinary guidelines, which prohibited the possession of "any object that can be construed to be a weapon." The State maintains that the flashlight can be construed to be a weapon considering its blunt nature. Therefore, the State asserts, the flashlight was contraband per se in the context of this Alternate School and was properly seized and searched as such. ( Illinois v. Andreas (1983), 463 U.S. 765, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1003, 103 S. Ct. 3319.) Although the circuit court made no ruling on this argument, a reviewing court may affirm the circuit court's decision based on any grounds in the record. People v. Thomas (1995), 164 Ill. 2d 410, 419, 207 Ill. Dec. 490, 647 N.E.2d 983.
Counsel for the State conceded at oral argument that, under the above logic, school officials could automatically seize and search any flashlight carried onto school grounds. Moreover, counsel admitted that, under his interpretation of the school's rule, any other blunt object, such as a book, could also be construed to be a weapon subject to automatic search and seizure. These are precisely the types of arbitrary invasions by government officials that the fourth amendment safeguards against. The State cannot compel attendance at public schools and then subject students to unreasonable searches of the legitimate, noncontraband items that they carry onto school grounds. ( T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 83 L. Ed. 2d 720, 105 S. Ct. 733.) Accordingly, we reject the State's initial argument.
The State next contends that, under the totality of the circumstances, Ruettiger had reasonable suspicion, as well as probable cause if required, to seize and search the flashlight. Defendant responds that Ruettiger had neither; rather, he seized and searched the flashlight on a mere hunch in violation of defendant's constitutional rights.
Before addressing these contentions, we must determine whether the proper fourth amendment standard to apply in this case is the less stringent reasonable suspicion standard for searches of students by school officials ( T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 83 L. Ed. 2d 720, 105 S. Ct. 733) or the general standard of probable cause. Defendant insists that because Ruettiger was a police officer, he was required to have probable cause to seize and search the flashlight.
The Court in T.L.O. stated that the standard of reasonableness applies to a search of a student "by a teacher or other school official." ( T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 341, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 734-35, 105 S. Ct. at 743.) In so ruling, however, the Court noted:
"We here consider only searches carried out by school authorities acting alone and on their own authority. This case does not present the question of the appropriate standard for assessing the legality of searches conducted by school officials in conjunction with or at the behest of law enforcement agencies, and we express no opinion on that question." T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 341 n.7, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 735 n.7, 105 S. Ct. at 743 n.7.
Decisions filed after T.L.O. that involve police officers in school settings can generally be grouped into three categories: (1) those where school officials initiate a search or where police involvement is minimal, (2) those involving school police or liaison officers acting on their own authority, and (3) those where outside police officers initiate a search. Where school officials initiate the search or police involvement is minimal, most courts have held that the reasonable suspicion test obtains. (See, e.g., Cason v. Cook (8th Cir. 1987), 810 F.2d 188 (applying reasonable suspicion where a school official acted in conjunction with a liaison officer); Martens v. District No. 220, Board of Education (N.D. Ill. 1985), 620 F. Supp. 29 (applying reasonable suspicion where an officer's role in the search of a student was limited); Coronado v. State (Tex. Crim. App. 1992), 835 S.W.2d 636 (applying reasonable suspicion where a school official, along with a sheriff's officer assigned to the school, conducted various searches of a student); In re Alexander B. (1990), 220 Cal. App. 3d 1572, 270 Cal.Rptr. 342 (applying reasonable suspicion where a school official initiated an investigation and requested police assistance); see generally Annot., 31 A.L.R.5th 229, 330, 376 (1995) (discussing several pre-T.L.O. and post-T.L.O. cases).) The same is true in cases involving school police or liaison officers acting on their own authority. (See In re S.F. (1992), 414 Pa. Super. 529, 531, 607 A.2d 793, 794 (applying reasonable suspicion to a search by a "plainclothes police officer for the School District of Philadelphia"); Wilcher v. State (Tex. Ct. App. 1994), 876 S.W.2d 466, 467 (applying reasonable suspicion where the searcher was "a police officer for the Houston Independent School District"). But see A.J.M. v. State (Fla. App. 1993), 617 So. 2d 1137 (holding that a school resource officer employed by a sheriff's office must have probable cause to search).) However, where outside police officers initiate a search, or where school officials act at the behest of law enforcement agencies, the probable cause standard has been applied. See, e.g., F.P. v. State (Fla. App. 1988), 528 So. 2d 1253 (applying probable cause where an outside police officer investigating an auto theft initiated the search of a student at school).
In the present case, the record shows that Detective Ruettiger was a liaison police officer on staff at the Alternate School, which is a high school for students with behavioral disorders. He worked there full-time, handling both criminal activity and disciplinary problems. Two teachers initially asked Ruettiger to search a student other than defendant for drugs. Once that search proved fruitless, he escorted the student back to his locker. The student met defendant at their neighboring lockers. In Ruettiger's presence, the two adolescents began talking and giggling as if they had fooled Ruettiger. Ruettiger noticed a flashlight in defendant's hand and immediately thought that it might contain drugs. He then seized and searched the flashlight, finding cocaine. Given this scenario, this case is best characterized as involving a liaison police officer conducting a search on his own initiative and authority, in furtherance of the school's attempt to maintain a proper educational environment. We hold that the reasonable suspicion standard applies under these facts.
This holding is consistent with this court's precedent. In In re Boykin (1968), 39 Ill. 2d 617, 237 N.E.2d 460, decided before T.L.O., this court applied a reasonableness standard to a search of a student at school. There, an assistant principal summoned two police officers to a Chicago high school. He informed the officers that he had received anonymous information that one of the students had a gun. The student was removed from his classroom and escorted to the hall, where the officers were waiting. After the student denied that he had a gun, one of the officers held the student's arms while the other officer removed a gun from his pants pocket. The Boykin court simply held that the search was reasonable under the circumstances and therefore rejected the student's claims that the search violated his rights under the fourth and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution and under section 6 of article II of the Illinois Constitution of 1870.
Our holding in this case also comports with Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995), 515 U.S. , 132 L. Ed. 2d 564, 115 S. Ct. 2386 (upholding the constitutionality of drug tests for student athletes in public high schools). There, the United States Supreme Court utilized a three-prong test for determining whether special needs beyond normal law enforcement require a departure from the usual fourth amendment standard of probable cause and a warrant. The competing interests of the individual and the State were balanced by an examination of the following: (1) the nature of the privacy interest upon which the search ...