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State v. Best

February 3, 2010

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
THOMAS E. BEST, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 403 N.J. Super. 428 (2008).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The issue in this appeal is whether the reasonable grounds standard adopted by the New Jersey Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court in State in the Interest of T.L.O., 94 N.J. 331 (1983) and 469 U.S. 325 (1985), respectively, applies to a public high school assistant principal's search of a student's car on school property.

On May 15, 2006, Peter Brandt, the assistant principal of Egg Harbor Township High School, received a report of a student suspected of being under the influence of drugs. Brandt met with the student, who admitted he ingested a green pill that eighteen-year-old defendant Thomas Best gave him during fifth period auto shop class. Brandt and another assistant principal interviewed Best, who denied any wrongdoing. Brandt searched Best and found three white capsules in his pants pocket, but no green pills. Best admitted that he sold a pill to a student, but claimed that the pill was merely a nutritional supplement. Brandt subsequently searched Best's locker, but discovered no pills.

Brandt was also aware that he had previously given Best permission to drive to school to have his car serviced in the school's auto shop. Brandt asked Best where his car was parked and indicated that he was going to search his car. Before searching the car, Brandt declined Best's request to call his father. A search of the car's passenger compartment revealed a liquid-filled syringe, a fake cigarette with a hole in it that could be used as a pipe, a wallet, a bottle of pills apparently belonging to Rose Foster, a bag of suspected marijuana, a bag containing a white powdery substance, and a vial. Best was arrested. He waived his right to remain silent and admitted that the contraband belonged to him. Best was charged with various drug and paraphernalia offenses.

Best moved to suppress the evidence seized from his car as a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. Brandt was the primary witness at the suppression hearing. He testified, in part, that students are given a handbook each year containing various policies. For example, there is a zero tolerance policy for drugs, alcohol, and other substances. That policy allows administrative inspections of students' lockers, book bags, purses, and backpacks in the interest of school safety and discipline, and the enforcement of school regulations. Brandt explained that students are required to obtain approval to drive to school and that anyone permitted to drive to school for auto shop service must surrender their car keys to the auto shop teacher. Brandt also testified that if he suspected a student had weapons, drugs, stolen items or anything threatening the safety of students, he would search the student and the student's locker. In addition, if the student had a car on school property, then the car would be searched. Brandt had previously conducted three or four car searches.

The trial court found that the assistant principal's search of the car was reasonably related in scope to his reasonable suspicion that Best had additional drugs that posed a real danger to the school community. Consequently, the trial court denied the motion to suppress. Best entered a plea agreement and applied for admission into the Intensive Supervision Program (ISP). Meanwhile, he appealed. In a published opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's order denying defendant's motion to suppress. The panel concluded that the standard for school searches outlined by the United States Supreme Court in the seminal T.L.O. case, applied to the search by a school official of a student's vehicle on school property, and further concluded that the assistant principal's search of the car was entirely reasonable.

The Supreme Court granted defendant's petition for certification. The Court also granted amicus curiae status to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU) and the New Jersey School Boards Association.

HELD: A school administrator need only satisfy the lesser reasonable grounds standard rather than the probable cause standard to search a student's vehicle parked on school property.

1. In similar language, the United States and the New Jersey Constitutions protect citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures and require the State to obtain a warrant prior to a search or seizure. Consistent with that standard, a warrantless search is presumed invalid unless it falls "within a recognized exception to the warrant requirement." T.L.O. makes it clear that the protections of the United States and the New Jersey Constitutions apply to minors and students and that among the constitutional protections afforded students is the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by state officers. Moreover, constitutional protections must be afforded by "the State itself and all of its creatures -- Boards of Education not excepted." In T.L.O. the Court concluded that the school official's search was unreasonable because he lacked reasonable grounds to believe that the student was concealing evidence of illegal activity in her purse. The United States Supreme Court agreed with this Court's expression that a reasonableness standard was the appropriate legal standard, but rejected the application of that standard to the facts. (Pp. 8-15)

2. Although this Court has not previously decided whether the reasonable grounds standard or the probable cause standard should apply to a school administrator's search of a student's vehicle on school property, other jurisdictions have. Those jurisdictions have consistently applied a reasonableness standard to the search of student vehicles on school property. In the present case, the Court finds no justification to reach a different conclusion. The need for school officials to maintain safety, order, and discipline is necessary whether school officials are addressing concerns inside the school building or outside on the school parking lot. It is the school environment and the need for safety, order, and discipline that is the underpinning for the school official -- who has reasonable grounds to believe that a student possesses contraband -- to conduct a reasonable search for such evidence. (Pp. 16-19)

3. Under the circumstances of this case, it was reasonable for the vice principal to believe that defendant may have additional contraband in all areas accessible to him on school property, including his locker and his car. Consequently, the vice principal's search of defendant's car was reasonably related in scope to the various locations on school property that defendant might have placed the contraband -- on his person, his locker, and his car. (Pp. 19-21)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in JUSTICE WALLACE's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wallace, Jr.

Argued September 14, 2009

We granted certification to determine whether the reasonable grounds standard adopted by our Court and the United States Supreme Court in State in the Interest of 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), applies to a public high school assistant principal's search of a student's car on school property. The trial court found that the reasonable grounds standard applied, and the Appellate Division affirmed. State v. Best, 403 N.J. Super. 428 (App. Div. 2008). We granted certification. 198 N.J. 313 (2009). We now affirm. We hold that a school administrator need only satisfy the lesser reasonable grounds standard rather than the probable cause standard to search a student's vehicle parked on school property.

I.

The facts are largely undisputed. In the early afternoon of May 15, 2006, Peter Brandt (hereinafter Brandt), the assistant principal of Egg Harbor Township High School, received a report of a student suspected of being under the influence of drugs. Brandt met with the student, who admitted he ingested a green pill that eighteen-year-old defendant Thomas Best gave him during fifth period auto shop class. After sending the student to a doctor for medical assistance and screening, Brandt located Best in his eighth period class and escorted him to the office.

Brandt and another assistant principal, Ted Pugliese, interviewed Best, who denied any wrongdoing. Brandt explained to Best that a student claimed he received a green pill from Best. Brandt then searched Best and found three white capsules in his pants pocket, but no green pills. Best admitted that he sold a pill to a student for five dollars, but claimed that the pill was ...


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