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State v. Best

November 10, 2008


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, Indictment No. 06-06-1335.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baxter, J.A.D.



Argued September 24, 2008

Before Judges Fisher, C.L. Miniman and Baxter.

This appeal presents the question of whether a school principal who suspects that evidence of criminal activity will be found in a student's car parked on school grounds is required to have probable cause before searching that vehicle or whether, instead, the reasonable suspicion standard approved by our Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court in State in re T.L.O., 94 N.J. 331, 346 (1983), rev'd on other grounds sub nom. New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 105 S.Ct. 733, 83 L.Ed. 2d 720 (1985), governs. We conclude that the privacy interests of students are outweighed by the substantial interest of teachers and administrators in maintaining a drug-free environment in the classroom and on school grounds. Consequently, we conclude that such vehicle searches need satisfy only the reasonable suspicion standard adopted by both courts in T.L.O. We thus affirm the trial court's order that denied defendant's motion to suppress. We also affirm his September 7, 2007 conviction.*fn1


On May 15, 2006, a school nurse at Egg Harbor Township High School notified assistant principal, Peter Brandt, and the school's resource officer, Edward Bertino, that a tenth-grade student, R.S., was suspected of being under the influence of drugs. When questioned by the school nurse, R.S. admitted he had taken a green pill purchased from defendant in class earlier that day. Brandt, accompanied by an assistant principal, immediately commenced an investigation.

Observing established school procedure, Brandt immediately located defendant and directed him to follow Brandt to the office where Brandt confronted defendant with his suspicion that defendant had brought contraband to school. When asked, defendant denied doing so. Brandt notified defendant that because another student claimed to have received a pill from defendant, he and the assistant principal were required to search him. That search yielded three white capsules in defendant's pants pocket. Once the capsules were found, defendant admitted he had sold one such pill to another student for $5, although defendant insisted the capsule was merely a nutritional supplement. In accordance with school protocol, Brandt and the assistant principal searched defendant's locker, but found no contraband. Aware that defendant had driven to school that day, Brandt asked defendant where his car was parked.

After unlocking the car, Brandt found in the passenger compartment of the vehicle various items he believed were drugs, including some marijuana. After the search was completed, Officer Bertino was notified and took defendant into custody. Defendant was thereafter arrested and charged with possession of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) (steroids and diazepam), N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(1) (counts one and two); distribution of CDS, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(a)(1) (count three); and third-degree distribution of CDS within 1000 feet of a school, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7 (count four).

Defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence found during the search of his vehicle. At the hearing on the motion, Brandt testified that students are prohibited from driving to school and must receive special permission in order to do so. So strict is the prohibition against students driving to school without prior approval that the Board of Education adopted a policy, distributed to all students, which provides that "any student found driving to school will be issued an alternative educational placement and any passenger will receive a central detention."

Brandt explained that defendant had received such special permission both because he was having work done on his car in the school's auto mechanics class and because of family circumstances that caused defendant to sometimes stay overnight outside of the township. Brandt explained that students like defendant, who drive their cars to school in connection with the auto mechanics class, are required to leave their keys with the auto mechanics teacher to prevent them from leaving school grounds during the day without permission.

At the conclusion of the motion hearing on April 24, 2007, Judge DeLury denied the motion. Relying on T.L.O., supra, Judge DeLury specifically held that the search "was reasonably related . . . in scope to the reasonable suspicions" of school officials that "there may still [have been] green pills [like the one sold to R.S.] on the premises of the school that would [have posed] a real danger to the school community . . . ." He reasoned that vehicles provide students with a place to bring and store contraband on school grounds. Under the circumstances presented, the judge concluded that the ...

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