Man found with a loaded gun in his backpack at Milton school has gun conviction dismissed

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.

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Comments

Far reaching ruling

By on

At the rally last week wasn't a far right extremist arrested with a firearm after the police searched his backpack? What about bag searching on the MBTA when the police search bags they deem suspicious? How do schools deal with strangers trying to gain entrance with authorization?

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Voting is closed. 30

It's a bit more complicated...

"At the rally last week wasn't a far right extremist arrested with a firearm after the police searched his backpack?"

No. According to a recent Herald article, he called BPD ahead and asked if he could carry. They asked, "You have LTC?" to which he replied, "Yes." They confiscated his vest. Later they searched it and found a pistol. When he showed up to claim his property, he was arrested for no LTC.
New York and Massachusetts don't have reciprocity.

He had a NY LTC.

Not sure about MBTA, I've heard that "You don't like search? Don't ride." BUT...they have more rights than a school? Aren't they a 'common carrier' or something?

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I would say it is pretty

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I would say it is pretty similar. They confiscated his lawful property and inadvertently found unlawful property.

I bet you the guy from the protest gets off.

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Voting is closed. 26

I'm a big fan of our constitution

By on

and our rights against unreasonable search, but imho, the court made the wrong decision in this case; I defy any person with at least a room temperature I.Q., and no serious social or cognitive deficit, to not conclude that the guy attempting to enter the school ,under the conditions described, was not a potential serious threat, and this was grounds for law enforcement to search his backpack.

I understand judges should look at the big picture and to a degree be cold and clinical (psychopathic?), but commonsense must also be used.

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Voting is closed. 15

Common sense was used: it's

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Common sense was used: it's not as if the state is paying the guy a million dollars for a civil rights violation, or that the officers/principal are getting reprimand.. It's just a matter of evidence seized being admissible in court.

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Voting is closed. 22

Hmmmnnn...

"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."

Pissa. So the cops show up, properly and can do...nothing?

WTF??

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Voting is closed. 26

No because the threshold is

By on

No because the threshold is suspicion of a crime. It's not a crime to carry a backpack. If they don't want people to bring guns in they should metal detect or pat frisk or do a bag search prior to entering the school. For searching the bag they need a warrant or suspicion of a crime, not potential crime, actual crime. If the threshold was suspicion of a potential crime, anybody or any thing could be searched anytime. The court was right imo.

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Voting is closed. 23

More like another victory for the ACLU

against searches that fail to meet whatever the relevant burden of proof is under the given circumstances. Whether the item found was a firearm or some other kind of contraband is irrelevant.

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Voting is closed. 20

How About the MTA?

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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 .... What we have said here relates only to conduct of police officers...

If I'm reading this decision correctly, it doesn't so much prohibit the search as prohibit the police from conducting it. If you're a teacher worried that some stranger in your workplace has a gun in his bag, well, looks like the SJC just made checking it out yourself part of your new job description.

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Nope

NRA does not condone violation of gun laws.

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True

By on

They just condone the murder of people who don't agree with them, at least according to their newest ads.

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Voting is closed. 21

The "shall not be infringed"

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The "shall not be infringed" part in the constitution and 200+ years of precedence in the placid state of Vermont gives credence to that sentiment.

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Voting is closed. 20

Only if you're unable to read

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Go read the Heller decision. Slowly and carefully. It doesn't say everybody has an absolute right to strap on a firearm.

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Heller is BS

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"Not everyone is entitled to said right"

Hey women, no more voting for you, slavery sure why not. Its a crap decision influenced by politics not our inherent rights as Americans (legal Americans).

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Voting is closed. 19

Are you truly that dense?

By on

Heller was a Second Amendment case that RE-AFFIRMED the right to own a gun. But just like the First Amendment doesn't give you the right to yell "fire" in a crowded theater, the Second Amendment doesn't say states can't set reasonable requirements on gun ownership (exactly what those requirements are is another issue), according to the court that exists precisely to determine just what the Constitution says.

Wake me when the court rules the 15th and 19th Amendments are no longer valid.

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Voting is closed. 5

Reality....

There is quite a few "upstanding citizens", who have things in their possessions they're not suppose to have.... You don't get caught because you wont get searched. Everyone has rights and if they're violated, wouldnt you want justice for self?!?!?

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Voting is closed. 20

This guy clearly was up to no

By on

This guy clearly was up to no good, but, all the police had to do is get a warrant.

There are judges always available. Radio their station, get the ADA on the phone, the ADA will call a judge, and a judge will give them a warrant to search him.

Plenty of cause to request one: showed up at a school he doesn't attend, demands to be let in, reeks of pot, says he's there to meet an underage girl...of course they'd get a warrant. All they would have had to do is wait 30 minutes for the phone calls. Once the judge gives the OK, the actual physical warrant can follow later.

Then this guy would be doing serious time for unlicensed possession of a firearm, possession of a firearm on school grounds, possession of ammunition, etc. They'd give him 10 years at least.

Now, he walks.

Get a warrant. Forcing the police to do it the same way, each time, helps prevent abuses like "stop and frisk". Sure, this is a school, but you can't pick and choose the level of Constitution protections someone has. They had him sitting down in a chair, with multiple cops, he wasn't an immediate threat to anyone.

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