A man packing a loaded firearm in the backpack he carried when caught inside Milton High School in 2015 had his gun charges dismissed today when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled a police officer did not have enough evidence to search him and his backpack without a warrant.
The state's highest court ordered a new trial for Jonathan Villagran on gun and marijuana charges, but without the gun, ammunition, marijuana and related supplies police said they found in his backpack.
In a 4-2 decision, the state's highest court ruled police, who discovered the gun and marijuana, have to follow a higher standard for searching property on school grounds than the school officials who called them in March, 2015, when Villagran showed up at the school's front door and gave three different reasons in rapid succession for why he should be let in - that he needed to use the restroom, that he was a student and that he was there to meet a girl whose name he couldn't recall.
The court ruled that while the school's principal and vice principal both appeared very rattled when police arrived, and suspected the guy, who reeked of pot, had something in his backpack, the sergeant who frisked him and searched his backpack had no evidence to suggest he was engaged in the sort of criminal activity that would warrant an immediate search as a possible threat. For example, the court said, the school officials did not know Villagran was armed and while he appeared nervous under police questioning, that was still not enough to subject him and his backpack to a search under the US and state constitutions.
The principal's unsubstantiated hunch that the defendant "had something on him," alone, was insufficient for a reasonable belief that the defendant was armed and dangerous, especially where the principal had invited the defendant to return to the school, the defendant had already emptied his pockets at the principal's direction, and the reasonable inference was that the principal believed that the defendant had marijuana or some other controlled substance on his person based on the strong odor of marijuana present in the room. ...
Moreover, the principal's hunch combined with [Sgt. Kristen] Murphy's observations of the defendant's nervousness and Murphy's testimony that both the principal and the vice-principal appeared to be "rattled" still did not establish a reasonable belief that the defendant was armed and dangerous where the defendant was compliant and did not make any furtive gestures or reach into his pockets in a manner that would suggest that he was carrying a weapon.
The justices acknowledged that events of recent years have given school officials sufficient reasons to worry about student safety, but said that can still be balanced with the need to have police follow the Constitution:
We do not underestimate the threat of violence in schools and other public places. Recent history bears out the folly of doing so. Nonetheless, our task is to respect the jurisprudence that has developed under the Fourth Amendment and art. 14. And we do so with confidence that public safety and constitutional rights are not inherently incompatible. We acknowledge that school officials, likely cognizant of other incidents where unauthorized persons entered school property and engaged in conduct with tragic consequences, are pressed to exercise caution in circumstances where they lack control of the person or the situation. The school officials in this case were appropriately cautious of the defendant and did what was expected of them to insure the safety of the students in their charge; they called the police. Thus, it is important to emphasize here that our ruling does not bear on what school officials themselves can and should do to insure the safety of students. Nor does our ruling handicap school officials in responding to behavior that presents a potential or real threat to student safety. What we have said here relates only to conduct of police officers, who as the Supreme Court noted in T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 343, are "school[ed] . . . in the niceties of probable cause" and other constitutional requirements. Where school officials who engage in protective activity are "not acting 'in conjunction with or at the behest of law enforcement agencies,'" their actions are governed by a less stringent constitutional standard.
Two justices dissented, saying Villagran was in a public place, where he should have expected a lessened right of privacy, especially given "the totality of circumstances in this case" and that:
Murphy's search of the defendant's backpack was reasonable, based on the potential danger to students.