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February 26, 1996



As Corrected March 14, 1996. As Corrected March 21, 1996.

The Honorable Justice Wolfson delivered the opinion of the court: Campbell, P.j. and Buckley, J., concur.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wolfson

The Honorable Justice WOLFSON delivered the opinion of the court:

These three cases arise from searches of high school students in public schools by Chicago police officers. In each case the student was charged with possession of a firearm on school property in violation of 720 ILCS 5/24-1(a)(12) (West 1992).

The charges were based on three separate incidents at three different schools. Two of the cases involved searches of students based on an individualized suspicion that each had some type of contraband on his person. In the third case the weapon was discovered in the course of a random, mass search of the entire student body through the use of a magnetometer or metal detector.

In each case the trial judge held the seizure of a handgun violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.

Our review of these cases is instructed by decisions of the United States and Illinois Supreme Courts: Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995), 515 U.S. , 132 L. Ed. 2d 564, 115 S. Ct. 2386; New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), 469 U.S. 325, 83 L. Ed. 2d 720, 105 S. Ct. 733; People v. Dilworth, 169 Ill. 2d 195, 1996 Ill. LEXIS 4, (Sup. Ct. Jan. 18, 1996), Docket No. 78274. Each decision dealt with searches of students in public schools.

Before reaching the facts of the cases before us, it would be useful to summarize the principles established in Vernonia, T.L.O., and Dilworth.

Principles for School Searches

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as extended to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, 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.

A student's subjective expectation of privacy, in his person and in the personal possessions he carries, is an expectation that society is prepared to recognize as legitimate. T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 336-37, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 732-33, 105 S. Ct. at 740-41.

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. Dilworth, slip op. at 8.

School officials, when carrying out searches and other disciplinary functions in furtherance of school policies, cannot claim a parent's immunity from the restrictions of the Fourth Amendment. T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 336-37, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 731, 105 S. Ct. at 739-40.

The main reason for lowering the Fourth Amendment standard applicable to searches of students in schools is to protect and maintain a proper educational environment for all students, not because of any real or imagined "special relationship" between students and teachers. Dilworth, slip op. at 13.

Teachers and administrators have a substantial interest in maintaining discipline in the classroom and on the school grounds. In recent years, school disorder "has often taken particularly ugly forms: drug use and violent crime in the schools have become major social problems." T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 339, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 733, 105 S. Ct. at 741.

The task of courts in cases like this is to strike a balance between the schoolchild's legitimate expectation of privacy and the school's equally legitimate need to maintain an environment in which learning can take place. T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 340, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 733, 105 S. Ct. at 742.

The legality of a search of a student should depend on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search. Determining reasonableness requires the answers to two questions: first, whether the action was justified at its inception; second, whether the search as actually conducted was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place. T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 341-42, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 734-35, 105 S. Ct. at 742-43.

Under ordinary circumstances, "a search of a student by a teacher or other school official will be 'justified at its inception' when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating the law or the rules of the school. Such a search will be permissible in its scope when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction." T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 341-42, 83 L. Ed. 2d at 734-35, 105 S. Ct. at 743.

The reasonableness inquiry cannot disregard the schools' custodial and tutelary responsibility for children. The State's power over schoolchildren permits a degree of supervision and control that could not be exercised over free adults. Vernonia, 515 U.S. at , 132 L. Ed. 2d at 576, 115 S. Ct. at 2392.

A search unsupported by probable cause can be constitutional, "when special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, make the warrant and probable cause requirement impracticable." Vernonia, 515 U.S. at , 132 L. Ed. 2d at 574, 115 S. Ct. at 2391, quoting Griffin v. Wisconsin (1987), 483 U.S. 868, 873, 97 L. Ed. 2d 709, 107 S. Ct. 3164, 3168. Such special needs exist in the public school context.

The test to determine whether special needs beyond normal law enforcement require a departure from the usual Fourth Amendment standard of probable cause and a warrant consists of three parts. The competing interests of the individual and the State are balanced by examining: (1) the nature of the privacy interest upon which the search intrudes; (2) the character of the intrusion, which includes an examination of whether the invasion of privacy is minimal or significant, and (3) the nature and immediacy of the governmental concern at issue, and the efficacy of the means for meeting it. Vernonia, 515 U.S. at , 132 L. Ed. 2d at 575-80, 115 S. Ct. at 2391-95; Dilworth, slip op. at 11.

The proper Fourth Amendment standard to apply in cases of school searches by a liaison police officer or any public school official is that of reasonable suspicion. Dilworth, slip op. at 10.

A city police officer assigned to a school full-time as a "liaison officer" is in the same position as a school official for Fourth Amendment purposes, even though his primary purpose at the school was to prevent criminal activity. Dilworth, slip op. at 16.

With these principles in mind, we turn to the individual cases before us. Each involved a hearing on the defendant's motion to suppress evidence. Since neither the facts nor the credibility of witnesses is seriously questioned in any of the cases, we will accept the trial judge's findings of fact and conduct a de novo review of each case. See Dilworth, slip op. at 4; People v. James (1994), 163 Ill. 2d 302, 310, 645 N.E.2d 195, 206 Ill. Dec. 190.

Serrick Pruitt


Pruitt testified he was searched before he reached the two lines of metal detectors, one for boys and one for girls, that had been set up inside the Fenger High School on November 24, 1993. He admitted a loaded .38 caliber handgun was found in his pants pocket.

The trial judge rejected Pruitt's testimony and accepted the police officer's testimony.

The State called Officer Edward Sonne. He testified that on November 24, 1993, he was assigned to assist in a random metal detector search at Fenger. The school did not use metal detectors every day. When the school decided to conduct a metal detector search, the Chicago police department, by request of the school, would assist.

On November 24, 1993, about 40 Chicago police officers were assigned to the Fenger School to assist in the metal detector operation. Seven or eight officers were stationed in the area of the metal detectors. Officer Sonne, dressed in uniform, was stationed at the metal detector used to screen the boys.

Pruitt passed through the metal detector at about 7:50 that morning. The machine registered a positive reading, indicating that he was carrying something metal on his person. Because of the positive reaction of the magnetometer, a protective pat-down search was made. In the pat-down, Officer Sonne felt a large metal object that felt like a gun. The object, located in Pruitt's pants pocket, was removed. It proved to be a .38 caliber revolver with a 2 1/2 - 3 inch barrel.

After the gun was discovered, Officer Sonne escorted Pruitt to a conference room where paper work regarding Pruitt's arrest was completed.

At the close of this evidence, the trial judge took the case under advisement. Due to comments made by the court, the State moved to reopen the case to offer further evidence to be considered on the motion. The trial court denied the request, but allowed the State to make an offer of proof for review purposes.

As part of its offer of proof, the State presented the testimony of Linda C. Layne, principal at Fenger. She explained that the school's rules and regulations are set forth in a handbook, which all students are given and required to keep with them. In the "Safe School Zone" section on page 10, the handbook notified students that "possession of guns, knives, or other weapons is forbidden and will result in arrest and expulsion from Fenger..."

Principal Layne also testified that she wrote a letter to the director of safety and security for the Chicago public schools on November 2, 1993, requesting a metal detector search. The request was supported by the school's council. The letter was prompted by a shooting incident which occurred near the school on October 15, 1993, and involved Fenger students on their way to school in a bus. Shots were fired from outside the bus. There was no evidence of the identity of the shooters.

The Bureau of Safety and Security for the school system provided Fenger with two metal detectors. They were set up for the operation on November 24, 1993. On that day about 40 police officers, who are normally assigned to various schools as part of the school patrol unit of the Chicago police department, came to Fenger school to assist. The police were under the direction of Principal Layne and the Safety and Security Bureau officer. Approximately 900 students passed through the metal detectors that day. It took five or six seconds for each student to walk through.

Principal Layne saw Pruitt in line. She did not see him pulled out of line before going through the metal detector.

The school handbook and a written offer of proof were submitted to the court. While the trial judge did not change his mind about allowing the additional evidence, he did consider the contents of the offer of proof when announcing his decision. For that reason, and because we believe the trial judge should have allowed ...

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