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Ohio Supreme Court: Warrantless backpack search was acceptable

The question of whether law enforcement has the right to search through people's belongings without their permission is at the core of our Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure. The baseline position is that, in order for a search to be reasonable, police need a search warrant, the person's consent, or another reason that furthers a compelling government interest without being unduly burdensome to the individual.

The trouble is, situations may vary. Courts have carved out a lot of individualized rules for common situations. Without the ability to search legal cases, it can be very difficult to tell if a search of your belongings is reasonable.

One of the major variables is whether people would reasonably expect privacy in their belongings, under the circumstances. Another is that minors, especially in a school setting, have less privacy rights than adults. Both of those variables lined up against the defendant in a recent Ohio Supreme Court case.

In the case before the court, a student had left his backpack on the bus. The driver found it, opened it enough to identify its owner and, realizing he had heard the teen was a gang member, turned it over to the principal. The principle went through the backpack more thoroughly and found bullets. This led the principle to turn the bag over to a police officer.

The police officer took the student down in a school hallway, seized another bag he was carrying and searched it. Inside was a gun.

The student felt these searches violated his rights and therefore asked to have the evidence suppressed. The trial court agreed, as did the court of appeals -- but the Ohio Supreme Court overturned those decisions. It found the search reasonable and said the evidence can be used against the teen.

The court reasoned that searching an unattended backpack "furthers the compelling governmental interest in protecting public-school students from physical harm." Furthermore, leaving a backpack on an empty school bus does not give rise to an expectation of privacy since the bus might be used for other children, and children are inquisitive.

The teen had argued that looking for identification in the unattended backpack was reasonable, but any further search went further than was necessary to protect the school, but the justices disagreed citing the possibility of there being a small explosive device inside.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves how reasonable it is to assume any unattended bag left on a school bus might contain a bomb.

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