Dog Searches for Drugs

For decades, school systems engaged in efforts to stem drug use and violence in schools. As a means to deter this behavior and to confiscate drugs and other contraband that pose a risk to the safety of both students and staff, school boards have increasingly come to rely on certified drug-sniffing dogs to respond to such threats. As the sample of rulings discussed in this entry suggest, mass suspicionless dog searches are generally accepted from a legal standpoint unless officials administer searches of persons. If canine searches are used on students’ bodies, then the expectation is that reasonable individualized suspicion is sufficient to permit a search. Otherwise, such intrusive searches are likely to violate the Fourth Amendment.

Foundation Cases

U.S. Supreme Court rulings in New Jersey v. T. L. O. (1985), Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995), and Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls (2002) largely provide the legal basis for permitting forms of evenhanded, mass suspicionless searches such as those involving drug-sniffing dogs.

In the landmark Fourth Amendment ruling of T. L. O., the Supreme Court ruled that school officials are generally exempt from having to secure warrants or obtain probable cause to administer searches of students. Instead, the Court was of the opinion that school officials had to meet a less rigid standard of reasonable suspicion to initiate a search. In order for searches to be reasonable, the Court explained that they must be justified at their inception and reasonable in scope in light of the sex, age, and maturity of students.

Vernonia v. Acton and Board of Education v. Earls were equally pivotal, because they upheld random drug examinations of students participating in athletics and extracurricular activities respectively. In both cases, the Court upheld random student drug testing, analyzing three primary factors: the decreased expectation of privacy afforded to students engaging in noncurricular activities, the relative unobtrusiveness of the drug-testing procedure, and the severity of the governmental need and efficacy of the approach. While the three cases appear to thread together a sufficient legal defense for dog searches, implementation issues relating to locker, vehicle, and person searches have emerged in lower court cases.

Dog-Related Rulings

Canine locker searches are a common staple in American public schools. It is generally believed that students are afforded a lesser expectation of privacy in government-owned storage such as lockers. This, in turn, gives school officials greater leverage to administer suspicionless searches in the interest of campus security and safety. While a considerable portion of case law, some predating T. L. O., supports the use of dog searches of lockers, courts customarily have ruled against purposive, incidental, or arbitrary dog searches of students’ persons or bodies.

Personal Searches

For instance, in Jones v. Latexo ISD (1980), a school board approved the use of drug dogs after signs of a possible schoolwide drug problem. At the initial search, the security company representative and handler, along with the dog, entered classrooms and walked along aisles of students sitting at their desks. After three students were identified as persons of suspicion, two were asked to remove the contents of their pockets; one pocket contained a hairclip appearing to be burnt and a bottle of Sinex; another pocket contained a cigarette lighter. Subsequent vehicle searches did confirm the possession of illegal contraband (i.e., marijuana cigarettes).

While school officials argued that they were executing a service, the court decided that dog sniffing of students without individualized suspicion undermines the provision that school officials must put together a necessary reasonable cause to administer a search. The Fifth Circuit, in Horton v. Goose Creek ISD (1982), reached a similar outcome but was distinct in that it ruled that dog searches of persons, absent individualized suspicion, constitute unlawful searches. The use of drug dogs to comb lockers and vehicles is not considered a true search as such under the purview of the Fourth Amendment.

Similarly, in B. C. v. Plumas Unified School District (1998), a drug-sniffing canine happened to alert authorities to a student walking in a campus hallway. After a search of the student’s person and belongings, no contraband was found. The Ninth Circuit maintained that the search violated the student’s Fourth Amendment rights, as the dog arbitrarily detected the student’s odors and because no prior notice of a search was communicated to the campus student body.

Car Searches

In addition to canine searches of lockers, courts have grappled with the expectation of privacy in student vehicles that are parked on campus grounds. In Jennings v. Joshua ISD (1989), a drug-sniffing dog alerted school officials to a vehicle belonging to a daughter of a federal law enforcement officer who, on learning of the dog-sniffing program, instructed his child not to consent to a search based on such information. When the student and her father refused consent, school officials contacted police. After a warrant was obtained, police searched the vehicle and nothing illegal was ever discovered. Although the plaintiffs argued that the search violated the Fourth Amendment and that school officials and law enforcement officers should be held monetarily responsible for damages, the Fifth Circuit ruled that no factual basis was present to claim that school officials and police orchestrated or conducted the search in a manner depriving the student of Fourth Amendment protection.

In Marner v. Eufaula City School Board (2002), a drug-sniffing dog search team led by law enforcement officers and school officials identified a high school student’s vehicle in a campus parking lot as possibly harboring narcotics. While a more extensive search of the student’s vehicle yielded no illegal drugs, two articles in violation of school policy were discovered: an exacto knife and a pocketknife of considerable size. Although school officials acknowledged the student had no intention of causing harm to others, the student was subsequently suspended and placed in an alternative educational placement for a 45-day period. A federal trial court in Alabama found the dog search permissible based on the credibility of suspicion coming from the dog’s alert.

Mario S. Torres Jr.

See also Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls; Drug Testing of Students; Locker Searches; New Jersey v. T. L. O.; Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton

Legal Citations

  • B. C. v. Plumas Unified School District, 192 F.3d 1260 (9th Cir. 1999). 
  • Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002), on remand, 300 F.3d 1222 (10th Cir. 2002). 
  • Horton v. Goose Creek Independent School District, 693 F.2d 524 (1982). 
  • Jennings v. Joshua Independent School District, 877 F.2d 313 (5th Cir. 1989). 
  • Jones v. Latexo ISD, 449 F. Supp. 223 (E.D. Tex. 1980). 
  • Marner v. Eufaula City School Board, 204 F. Supp. 2d 1318 (M.D. Ala. 2002). 
  • New Jersey v. T. L. O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985). 
  • Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 64 (1995).