Whether school administrators may access and search the contents of a student’s cell phone without consent
Jackson, et al v. McCurry, et al, concerns whether school administrators may search the contents of a student’s cell phone without their consent. Two high school administrators searched a student’s cell phone without a warrant or the student’s consent during their investigation of alleged threats made against the student. Based on this and other events, the student’s parents filed suit, asserting that the school violated the student’s Fourth Amendment rights. The lower court found that defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and that it was not clearly established that school administrators searching a student’s cell phone under the circumstances violated the Fourth Amendment.
Whether school administrators may access and search the contents of a student’s cell phone without a warrant and without the student’s consent
At a local High School in Chattahoochee County, Georgia, two administrators searched a student’s cell phone without a warrant during their investigation of alleged threats against the student. The student, EDJ, was in twelfth grade during the 2016-2017 school year. In August of 2016, students began circulating rumors around the school that EDJ was “bad-talking” another student, M. M soon learned of those rumors and ultimately threatened EDJ. In response, EDJ told school officials of M’s threat. The next day, a school administrator began gathering information about the incident by interviewing M and two other students, A and B. M informed the administrator that EDJ had been making fun of her for not making the volleyball team. A and B confirmed the story and informed the administrator that EDJ had been sending them text messages about M as well. The administrator then informed the principal of the situation.
The administrator then interviewed EDJ in the presence of the principal. They questioned EDJ about her sending text messages to other students as A, B, and M alleged. EDJ denied talking about M. EDJ then claimed the administrator told her to unlock her phone and give it to him to look through her text messages to other students. EDJ did not give the administrator permission to search the phone. The administrator reviewed messages with students A and B, and then went on to search messages from EDJ’s family members, best friend, and ex-boyfriend. After finding nothing that implicated EDJ, the administrator returned the phone to EDJ.
U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia
The District Court found that the administrators were entitled to qualified immunity for the federal law claims. The Court found that “[w]hile T.L.O. clearly established the general standard for the search of a student,” the Plaintiffs did not provide the court with any authority addressing the constitutionality of a search of a student’s cell phone. The Court also did not find that “it would have been clearly obvious to a school official in [the principal’s] circumstances that the Fourth Amendment prevented him from conducting the search of EDJ’s phone as he did.”
The Court determined that defendants had reasonable grounds to suspect that a search of EDJ’s text messages would reveal evidence that she was violating school rules against harassment. The administrators searched the cell phones in belief she was sending negative messages about M to other students. This belief was based on information provided by other student interviews. And because the conduct alleged constituted harassment under school policy, the Court determined that the administrators had reasonable grounds to search the cell phone.
The Court also acknowledged Riley v. California. It determined that while in Riley, the Supreme Court established that officers may no categorically conduct searches of information stored on cell phones, the Court already established in T.L.O. that school officials did not need a warrant to search students suspected of violating school rules. The Court further emphasized that T.L.O. specifically recognized searches of “highly personal items [such] as photographs, letters, and diaries” that students carried to school. The Court recognized the development of technology, but emphasized that such development still fit within the T.L.O. framework.
EPIC seeks to preserve Fourth Amendment privacy protections in the digital age. Jackson v. McCurry is relevant to EPIC’s mission because of its potential impact on student privacy, cell phone privacy, and government overreach. As an expert on constitutional privacy rights, including student privacy, EPIC is uniquely qualified to support the argument that students do not lose a reasonable expectation of privacy at the schoolhouse gate.
This case builds on EPIC’s prior work. EPIC frequently files amicus briefs in state and federal courts on important Fourth Amendment issues related to technologies. Most recently, EPIC filed an amicus brief in Commonwealth v. White, concerning whether schools may turn over to the police a student’s cell phone without a warrant. EPIC argued that “digital is different,” and therefore the legal standard for warrantless searches of contraband in schools does not apply to cell phones. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ultimately held that the Fourth Amendment prohibits law enforcement from seizing a cell phone based simply on an officer’s suspicion that a cell phone may be used in a crime, finding that a warrant must be obtained prior to the seizure of the phone.
EPIC also filed an amicus brief in Riley v. California, concerning the constitutionality of a warrantless cell phone search incident to arrest. EPIC argued that “allowing police officers to search a person’s cell phone without a warrant following an arrest would be a substantial infringement on privacy, is unnecessary and unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” A unanimous Supreme Court agreed, holding that the traditional rule governing the seizure of physical items incident to a lawful arrest does not authorize a search of the digital contents of a seized cell phone. The Court cited EPIC’s brief twice in its opinion.
EPIC also works to protect student privacy outside of the amicus context. EPIC has proposed a Student Privacy Bill of Rights to safeguard student data and security, obtained documents regarding the misuse of education records through the Freedom of Information Act, and sued the Department of Education regarding changes in an agency regulation that diminished the safeguards set out in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal student privacy law.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, Nos. 18-10231