Cocaine Case Ruling: Teachers Have More Rights Than Students

Times Staff Writer

A state Court of Appeal upheld on Monday the dismissal of cocaine charges against a teacher's aide, ruling that teachers have greater constitutional protections from searches by school authorities than students.

In a unanimous decision, the three-judge panel acknowledged that recent rulings by both the U.S. and California supreme courts have broadened school officials' authority to search students for drugs and weapons.

Those standards do not apply, however, when teachers or teacher's aides are searched by a school district police officer, the court said.

"Both federal and state decisions have long held that the need for maintaining discipline justifies far more drastic restrictions on the protected freedoms of schoolchildren than it would if they were adults," Appellate Justice Jerome A. Smith wrote in an opinion joined by Appellate Justices J. Anthony Kline and Allison M. Rouse.

"Teachers do not forfeit their constitutional rights as adults merely by walking through the schoolyard gate."

Bill of Rights

The panel also rejected the contention that such searches should be allowed under provisions of the 1982 Victims' Bill of Rights guaranteeing students the right to attend "safe, secure and peaceful" schools.

The court declined to make its ruling binding in future cases. A state prosecutor said there is a "pretty good chance" the case will be appealed to the California Supreme Court.

"This is an interesting case," state Deputy Atty. Gen. Don Jacobson said. "It balances the rights of the individual being searched against what we felt were the rights of the students, teachers and everyone else at the school to be protected."

In its decision, the appellate court affirmed a ruling by a Contra Costa Superior Court judge dismissing charges of possession for sale of cocaine brought against Matti Marie Mason, a teacher's aide at Dover Elementary School in Richmond.

According to court records, the school principal received an anonymous note and a complaint from an unnamed teacher in September, 1985, alleging that Mason was involved in "guns and drugs."

A school district police officer was summoned to the school and met with the principal, who asked him to search Mason. When the aide arrived at the principal's office, she denied she was carrying weapons but refused to allow a search of her purse. After the officer said he would search the purse anyway, she emptied its contents herself.

'Hard White Material'

One of the items she removed was a plastic bag containing other bags and a "hard white material" that resulted in her arrest for drug possession.

In pretrial proceedings, a magistrate denied Mason's motion to dismiss the case, upholding the prosecution's claim that the officer had the legally required probable cause to justify a search of her purse. Superior Court Judge Richard Arnason disagreed, finding that the officer had exceeded his authority. The judge ordered the charges dismissed.

Prosecutors took the issue to the Court of Appeal, urging the justices to apply rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and the state Supreme Court allowing searches of students on the less strict standard of "reasonable suspicion."

The appeal court said the need for flexibility and informality in the student-teacher relationship that formed the basis for the high court decisions does not apply, however, when a school police officer searches a teacher or other adult.

"Where a police officer searches a teacher in a school environment, the constitutionality of the search must be measured by the ordinary probable cause test," Smith wrote.

In this case, he concluded, the authorities lacked first-hand knowledge or adequate corroboration to support the reports of Mason's involvement in guns and drugs, thus there was no probable cause to justify the search of her purse.

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