Georgia Juvenile Search and Seizure Law

Georgia Juvenile Search and Seizure Law

If your child is facing charges in Juvenile Court after being searched in school, you should talk to a Georgia Juvenile Court Attorney immediately.

Suppression Motions: What are they and what do they do?

If your child was searched illegally, the resulting evidence may be subject to suppression. Typically, if your Georgia Juvenile Court Attorney believes that a search was illegal, he or she files a Motion to Suppress. This motion lays out for the judge the grounds for the motion – the reasons why your lawyer believes the evidence to have been illegally obtained and therefore inadmissible.

The Court schedules the motion for a hearing. In some Georgia Juvenile Courts, a motions hearing is scheduled for the same day as the adjudicatory hearing, or trial, and occurs just prior to the trial. In other courts, motions are heard on a different day prior to trial. When a juvenile defendant is challenging the legality of a search, the State bears the burden of proving that the search was conducted legally. O.C.G.A. § 17-5-30. Just as in a trial, both the State and the Defense may call witnesses and present evidence to the judge.

At the end of the hearing, the judge decides if evidence was illegally obtained. In most cases, if the judge finds that evidence was illegally obtained, it cannot be used at trial. Weeks v. U.S., 232 U.S. 383, 34 S.Ct. 431 (1914). See also Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 81 S.Ct. 1684 (1961). This is known as the exclusionary rule and its implications in school searches are discussed below.

It is also important to note that the mere fact that a search was illegal does not mean that the State cannot move forward with a trial. It merely means that the evidence seized is inadmissible. Frisbie v. Collins, 342 U.S. 519 (1952). The Supreme Court of the United State has also held that any evidence directly resulting from the illegally obtained evidence is “fruit of the poisonous tree” and is similarly inadmissible. Nardon v. U.S., 308 U.S. 338, 341 (1939). For example, if the police illegal search a student and find contraband, and then interrogate that student regarding the contraband and receive a confession, the confession would likely also be inadmissible.

As one might imagine, motions practice is incredibly important. If a key piece of the State's evidence was obtained illegally and suppressed from evidence, it can result in dismissal of the case. This is why, if your child was searched and subsequently arrested, it is so important to speak with a Georgia Juvenile Court Attorney immediately.

How does this fit in with my child's case?

It is the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that protects individuals from unlawful searches and seizures conducted by agents of the State. Georgia courts have held that Fourth Amendment protections do extend to students while they are in school. State v. Young, 234 Ga. 488, 216 S.E.2d 586 (1975). However, these protections are not unlimited, and there are certain circumstances under which students can be searched while in school (and without a parent's presence).

Although courts in other states have ruled differently, in Georgia, whether a search was legally conducted depends on who conducted the search.

If the search was conducted by a law enforcement officer, that officer must have had probable cause prior to conducting the search. The Georgia Court of Appeals has held that School Resource Officers (SROs) are considered law enforcement officers, not school officials, for purposes of this analysis. State v. Scott, 279 Ga.App. 52, 55, 630 S.E.2d 563 (2006). The Supreme Court of the United States has stated that, to have probable cause, the officer must believe that there is a “fair probability or substantial chance” of discovering evidence. See Safford Unified Sch. Dist. #1 et al. v. Redding, 129 S.Ct. 2633, 2639 (2009).

If the search was conducted illegally by law enforcement acting alone, the exclusionary rule (discussed above) applies. State v. Young, 234 Ga. 488, 216 S.E.2d 586 (1975).

If the search was conducted by school officials acting alone, they need only have reasonable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. Patman v. State, 244 Ga.App. 833, 537 S.E.2d 118 (2000). Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause, and Georgia courts have held that “school officials may search subject only to the most minimal restraints necessary to insure that students are not whimsically stripped of personal privacy and subjected to petty tyranny.” Id. To determine the reasonableness of a search conducted by school officials, a court must analyze whether the search was justified at its inception, and whether the search, as conducted, was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified it. New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1984).

In order to determine whether a search was justified at its inception, courts look at a variety of factors. For example, courts have found a search to be justified when a student smelled strongly of marijuana, or when school officials received a reliable anonymous tip regarding a student's possession of contraband. Unreliable tips, hunches, or “non-cooperative” behaviors are not sufficient to justify a search.

The determination of whether a search was reasonable related in scope to the circumstances that justified it, a court must weigh the intrusiveness of the search with the school's interest in maintaining order. This is a very fact-based analysis. For example, if school officials received information that a male student had drugs at school on a particular day, they would likely not be justified in conducting body searches of all female students.

If the search was conducted by school officials acting alone, Georgia courts have held that the exclusionary rule does not apply. State v. Young, 234 Ga. 488, 216 S.E.2d 586 (1975). However, other remedies – a civil lawsuit, for example – may be available.

Often, searches conducted in schools do not fit neatly into one of these two categories. Many times, school officials act in conjunction with law enforcement personnel. In situations like these, a slightly different analysis is necessary.

In In re T.A.G., the Court of Appeals analyzed the question of “officer involvement” in the context of a student's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, but it noted the interconnectedness of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments in the context of “officer involvement.” It noted that, for a non-Mirandized custodial statement to school personnel to be suppressed from evidence, police involvement need not be substantial, but that any involvement or participation by law enforcement personnel brings the case within Young's third category, implicating the exclusionary rule. In re T.A.G., 292 Ga.App. 48, 663 S.E.2d 392 (2008).

In In re T.A.G., the Court of Appeals held that even if an officer “avoided direct involvement,” the trier of fact must determine on a case-by-case basis whether the school officials acted as “agents of the police.” Id. This determination is to be made by evaluating the totality of the circumstances. Cook v. State, 270 Ga. 820 (1999). In T.A.G., a school administrator testified that the S.R.O. was only involved “to ensure the safety of themselves and the students,” but that the S.R.O. occasionally gave advice to administrators as to how to conduct the investigation. The administrator also testified that “[the administrator] and the officer knew that different rules would apply if the police became involved,” so they decided the officer should not participate in the investigation. The fruits of the investigation were ultimately turned over to law enforcement.

In T.A.G., although school officials physically did all the work, they did so as agents of the police, and with police involvement. For this reason, the exclusionary rule applied and the resulting evidence was suppressed. Practically speaking, many cases in Georgia occur like this.

Because all of the analyses surrounding the Fourth Amendment are so fact-based, it is essential that you and your child provide as much detail as possible to your attorney. If your child was searched in school, you should immediately have him or her write down everything they remember about the search – who was there, where it occurred, and what (if any) statements were made before or during the search. Provide this information to your Georgia Juvenile Court Attorney as soon as possible.

The idea of challenging illegal searches is often difficult for non-lawyers to swallow. In society, there is generally a belief that, if a person is searched and contraband is found, he is guilty and should admit his guilt. However, the State also bears an enormous responsibility – it must obtain convictions (or, in this case, juvenile adjudications) in accordance with the Constitution. This responsibility is the foundation of our justice system, both for juveniles and for adults. If it cannot do that, a person cannot be found guilty (or delinquent). It is the job of your Georgia Juvenile Court Attorney to ensure that the State meets its burden.

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