Does the "special needs" rule justify the officer's search of the parked car's trunk without probable cause in the following scenario?
A police officer was investigating a burglary during which a handgun had been stolen. The police officer was at the time also acting as the police advisor to a high school. School officials called the officer and told him that the gun might be in the trunk of a student's car parked in the school parking lot. Does the "special needs" rule justify the officer's search of the parked car's trunk without probable cause?
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In cases like New Jersey v. TLO the Supreme Court has held that searches without probable cause may be legal when done by school officials. These searches can be legal because there is a "special need" for school officials to do things that would allow them to maintain order in a school setting. Under this doctrine, the officer's search is probably justified.
In this situation, the handgun is potentially available to the student if it is, indeed, in the trunk of his car. The student could go out into the parking lot and get the gun. This would undoubtedly cause a breakdown in order (to say the least) in the school. Because this would be a very serious danger, the officer (as a school official) is justified in searching the student's car.
As both a teacher and someone who works with youth homeless and the county jail, the above answer is correct. I would go further with the idea of the safety of the students in the school. Students count on teachers and staff to keep them safe, and we have already seen too many shootings at schools in this country. Homeless students, however, are very aware of the dangers facing them as many have been attacked and their few possessions stolen from where they live outside, and they see little difference in their vulnerability inside a school building. The legality of "special need" is important because of the need to keep our youth safe, no matter whether they believe we can or not. The homeless students in school, and yes, they are there in almost every school, need a sense of safety somewhere, and the special need rule is one of the ways to show them there is safety in a school which justifies the officer's search of the student's car.
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