New Resource on Juvenile Delinquency Investigations

The investigation of offenses subject to juvenile jurisdiction requires an understanding of how the law regarding juvenile investigations varies from the law that governs criminal investigations. I am happy to share Juvenile Law Related to the Investigation of Delinquent Acts, a new Juvenile Law Bulletin that details laws unique to juvenile investigations. This blog provides some highlights from the search and seizure section of the Bulletin.

Fourth Amendment Protections Apply to Juveniles

While it is well established that delinquency proceedings are civil in nature (In re  Burrus, 275 N.C. 517 (1969), G.S. 7B-2412), it is also well established that the Fourth Amendment protects all people from unreasonable search and seizure, including juveniles. Generally, this protection against unreasonable search and seizure applies to juveniles in the same way that it applies to adults who are subject to criminal jurisdiction. Probable cause is usually needed to obtain a warrant that authorizes a search unless an exception, such as an investigative stop, applies. However, searches of students that occur in school are subject to a different standard.

Schoolhouse Searches Subject to Reasonableness Standard

The United States Supreme Court initially established a reasonableness standard for searches conducted by school officials in a public-school setting in New Jersey v. T.L.O, 469 U.S. 325 (1985). The Court held that balancing the privacy interests of schoolchildren against the substantial need of school personnel to maintain order in schools does not result in a need for probable cause to conduct a search.  Instead, the search need only be reasonable. In order for a search to be reasonable, it must be:

(1) justified at its inception (defined as circumstances in which there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated rules of the school or the law) and

(2) permissible in its scope (defined as measures that 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).

While the decision in T.L.O. related to a search conducted by school officials, North Carolina courts have consistently applied the reasonableness standard to searches conducted by law enforcement in conjunction with school officials to maintain a safe educational environment. The Bulletin describes these cases, culminating with In re D.L.D, 203 N.C. App. 434 (2010). In D.L.D. the court explained that the T.L.O. reasonableness standard applies when (1) school officials initiate a search on their own, (2) law enforcement involvement is minimal, (3) law enforcement acts in conjunction with school officials, and (4) School Resource Officers conduct investigations on their own or at the direction of school officials and in furtherance of well-established educational and safety goals.

The Breadth of the School Search Reasonableness Standard

As the Bulletin details, the T.L.O. reasonableness standard has been applied by courts to determine the constitutionality of a variety of searches in the school setting. This includes strip searches and searches of student cell phones.

The Supreme Court of the United States addressed the issue of strip searches in the school context in Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364 (2009). While the Court applied the reasonableness standard to the strip search, it held that a school search that rises to the level of a strip search requires a level of suspicion that matches the high degree of intrusion involved in a strip search. In this case, the school nurse and an assistant principal conducted a search of a 13-year-old middle-school girl for prescription-strength ibuprofen and over-the-counter naproxen. After the student was told to remove her jacket, socks, shoes, stretch pants, and T-shirt, she was asked to pull open and shake her bra and to pull open the waistband of her underpants—partially exposing her breasts and pelvic area. The Court held that this kind of search required a reasonable suspicion of danger or a reasonable suspicion that the prohibited medications were hidden in the girl’s underwear to “make the quantum leap from outer clothes and backpacks to exposure of intimate parts.” (at 377).  The Court did not find any such reasonable suspicion under the facts of the case and held that the search was therefore not justified.

North Carolina appellate courts have not yet addressed the application of the reasonableness standard to the search of a student’s cell phone. However, several federal courts have applied the T.L.O. reasonableness standard to searches of student cell phones at school. The cases fall into two categories. Some courts have found that an allegation that a student was violating a school rule as a result of cell phone use justified a further search of the phone to ascertain the extent of the rule violation. Simpson, Next Friend of J.S. v. Tri-Valley Community Unit School District No. 3., 470 F. Supp. 3d 863 (C.D. Ill. 2020), Jackson v. McCurry, 303 F. Supp. 3d 1367 (M.D. Ga. 2017), aff’d, 762 F. App’x 919 (11th Cir. 2019) (unpublished per curiam opinion). Other courts have held that the simple violation of a school rule due to possession of a cell phone does not necessarily render the subsequent search of the phone reasonable. G.C. v. Owensboro Public Schools, 711 F.3d 623 (6th Cir. 2013), Klump v. Nazareth Area School District, 425 F. Supp. 2d 622 (E.D. Pa. 2006).

Youth and Excessive Force Analysis

The Supreme Court of the United States established, in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 388 (1989), that an analysis of whether an officer used excessive force during the seizure of a person requires the application of the objective reasonableness standard contained in the Fourth Amendment. This is true for juveniles as well as adults. In applying this standard to seizures of children, several federal appellate courts have noted that the young age of a child is an important factor to consider when determining objective reasonableness. The Bulletin details several cases where courts held that the use of force on a child was not reasonable, often noting that the young age of the child was a factor in the determination.

There are some additional common themes that run throughout these cases, including that none of the children involved were suspected of any crime. Instead, they tended to be present at the execution of a search or arrest warrant unrelated to the child. In addition, the children did not resist law enforcement or attempt to flee. It may therefore be especially important for law enforcement to exercise caution in using force against children who happen to be present at the execution of a search or arrest warrant, especially when those children are not suspected of committing any offense.

The Bulletin Includes Much More Information

This blog provides a small window into the content of the Bulletin. In addition to detailed analysis of the reasonableness standard in school searches and excessive force analysis related to juveniles, the Bulletin includes juvenile investigation topics that I have written about in previous blogs. These topics include:

  • nontestimonial identification orders in juvenile cases,
  • impaired driving investigations involving juveniles, and
  • confidentiality of juvenile investigations.

In addition, a previous juvenile law bulletin on Juvenile Interrogation details the many laws that are unique to juvenile interrogation. I would love to hear from you if there is an important topic unique to juvenile investigations that I have missed. You can always reach me at