Your Backpack Please: Florida Appeal Court Rules Legal Search Based on Anonymous Tip
FlaglerLive | December 27, 2013
On Oct. 12, 2011, the administration at Miami’s Northwestern Senior High School got an anonymous tip through the the Miami-Dade County Police Department Gun Bounty Program that a student was carrying a firearm in his back pack.
A vice principal and two school cops took the student out of class and escorted him to a conference room. A cop searched the bag and produced a loaded semi-automatic handgun.
The student, referred to in court papers as K.P., was charged as a juvenile with carrying a concealed weapon, possession of a firearm on school grounds, and possession of a firearm by a minor. He moved to exclude the handgun from evidence, arguing that the search of his book bag violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The trial court denied the motion. Following a trial, the court withheld adjudication and imposed fifteen days in secure detention and one year of probation.
On Thursday, a divided appeals court rejected arguments that K.P.’s constitutional rights were.
In his appeal to the 3rd District Court of Appeal, the student argued that evidence of the gun should have been suppressed because of a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. The argument focused heavily on the fact that an anonymous tip led to the search. But appeals-court Judge Thomas Logue, in a 2-1 decision, wrote Thursday that the search was reasonable in protecting students in a school.
“Admittedly, the tip at issue in this case may not be sufficient to have justified a stop and frisk of K.P. for weapons on a public street (much less an outright search of his book bag) because it may not contain sufficient indicia of reliability reflecting that K.P. was actually carrying a firearm,” wrote Logue, who was joined in the majority opinion by Chief Judge Frank Shepherd. “But the circumstances supported reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing in the context of preventing the threat of gun violence in a classroom.”
The judge ruled along those lines even though he conceded that “Generally, a search based upon an anonymous tip withstands scrutiny under the Fourth Amendment only if the tip contains sufficient details and information that can be independently corroborated by the police to establish a level of reliability regarding the information in the tip.”
In other words, “A tip that does no more than accurately describe a suspect’s readily observable location and appearance on a public street is insufficient to pass Fourth Amendment muster because it fails to ‘show that the tipster has knowledge of concealed criminal activity.'”
Nevertheless, the judge ruled that the situation at school compelled a search.
Judge Linda Ann Wells, in a dissenting opinion, said the anonymous tip was not legally sufficient to justify searching the book bag, though it was enough justification to remove the student from class and question him and examine the outside of the bag. “Had such actions been taken and resulted in information or observations which would reasonably support a determination that K.P. either had been or was violating the law or school rules, then a search of K.P.’s backpack would have been justified from its inception,” Wells wrote. “Because none of this took place before K.P.’s backpack was searched, the warrantless search of K.P.’s backpack was not reasonable under the circumstances and K.P.’s motion to suppress should have been granted.”
–FlaglerLive and News Service of Florida