Earlier this week, a twenty-five year old Math teacher at Rocky Mount Preparatory School was accused of having sexual contact with three underage students (http://bit.ly/2tjMeLR). Students and teachers were interviewed before a warrant for Erin McAuliffe was issued. McAuliffe was later arrested. McAuliffe was fired on May 4th and had her first appearance in court yesterday to face the allegations brought against her.
When serious misconduct in connection with a school, and teachers or students suddenly transition to suspects and witnesses, the question of what rights those individuals have have often arises and can be critical.
The 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution protects against unreasonable search and seizure. This has been interpreted by the courts to protect against unreasonable search and seizure by government officials such as police officers, FBI agents, and other governmental agencies. However, the 4th Amendment does not protect against a private citizen’s unreasonable search and seizure of other private citizens.
So is a teacher a State actor or private citizen? Teachers are considered State actors under the law. Public school officials are representatives of the State according to New Jersey v. T.L.O. However, unlike police or other law government actors, teachers and school officials do not need a warrant to search a student’s property. Getting a warrant can take time, which has been deemed by the courts to be unsuitable for the school environment when safety is a primary concern. A search may be conducted when there are reasonable grounds that evidence will be found showing a student’s violation of the law or school rules according to New Jersey v. T.L.O. The search must be conducted reasonably especially in light of the age and sex of the student. The search must not be excessively intrusive based on those factors. See New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 332 (1985).
For example, a strip-search of a student has been found highly intrusive. A fairly recent Supreme Court case reviewed facts in which a thirteen-year-old student was asked to remove clothing and “shake out” her underwear while school officials looked for prescription-strength ibuprofen. The student’s attorney argued that the search was very intrusive on a young, female student when the only allegation was that she might have prescription-strength ibuprofen. High Court Weighs School Strip Search Arguments, ABC News. http://abcn.ws/2rZ0Nqf
Each case depends on the individual facts and surrounding circumstances. The bottom line is that public school officials are state actors who have to abide by a certain standard when subjecting an accused individual to a search or seizure, otherwise they may risk violating the 4th Amendment.
For more information on Constitutional rights, contact Parton & Associates, PLLC.
Drafted by Megan S. White, Attorney-at-Law
The law applies differently in each situation. Nothing on this page should be construed as or be relied upon as legal advice.