Court: Search of Contents of Student Cell Phone Covered by Qualified Immunity — J.W. v. Desoto County School Dist.

[Post by Venkat]

J.W. v. Desoto County School Dist., et al., 09-cv-00155-MPM-DAS (N.D. Miss.; Nov. 1, 2010)

The Virginia Attorney General set off a small firestorm (e.g., “Should Teachers Be Searching Cell Phones?“) when he issued an opinion to the effect that principals and teachers may seize student cell phones and laptops and access their contents in order to combat “cyber bullying.” (You can access a copy of the opinion here: [pdf].) Interestingly, earlier last month, a federal court in Mississippi held that individual defendants were shielded from civil claims (by qualified immunity) based on an allegedly improper search of a student cell phone.

The facts of the Mississippi case are fairly straightforward. R.W., a student, opened his phone (while in class) to receive a text message from his father. A school district disciplinary rule prohibited students from possessing or using cell phones while at school. A school district employee confiscated the phone and, according to the plaintiff, “opened the phone to review the personal pictures stored on it.” The employee discovered photos of another student holding a B.B. gun. R.W. was escorted to the principal’s office where other school employees viewed the contents of his phone. As a result, R.W. was suspended for violating a rule which prohibits students from “displaying messages associated with any gang . . . [or] criminal activity.” [The order isn’t totally clear, but it looks like the school administrators must have found other photos as well.] R.W. was expelled and brought suit, alleging that the search and expulsion violated his constitutional rights.

The court held that the actions of the individual defendants were protected under qualified immunity (under which public officials can only held liable for damages if they violate “clearly established” constitutional rights). The court gives an obligatory nod to the relaxed standards for when searches are appropriate in schools. Although R.W. argued that there was no reason for the school officials to look at the contents of his phone, the court found otherwise, noting that the search could be viewed as reasonable for a variety of legitimate reasons (e.g., to find evidence of cheating or that the student was improperly communicating with another student via his cell phone).

The court distinguished a recent case from Pennsylvania (Klump v. Nazareth Area School Dist., 425 F. Supp. 2d 622 (E.D. Pa. 2006) [pdf]) where the court denied qualified immunity for individual defendants, on the basis that in the Pennsylvania case, the officials “appeared to use [the accident of the phone falling out of the student’s pocket] as a pretext to conduct a wholesale fishing expedition into the student’s life.” In the Pennsylvania case, the facts of the search were more egregious: administrators used the student’s phone to call other students, accessed the student’s voicemail and text messages, and even had an AOL Instant Message conversation with someone using the student’s phone.

Nevertheless, the court in this case had an awkward time distinguishing the two cases. There was little justification in this case for the officials to view the contents of the phone, much less the photos on there. That said, the court was clearly bothered by the facts of the case, and the fact that the search resulted in discipline for off-campus conduct. Although the court let off the individual defendants, the court was skeptical of the propriety of the school district’s conduct overall, and admonished the school district to “give serious consideration” to settling the case. The court also chastises the school for its inconsistent reasons for expelling R.W. – the actual offense of bringing a phone to school was only punishable by a three day suspension, and justifying the expulsion based on the photos on the cell phone was akin to “call[ing] in a student on a Monday morning and ask him to explain, under penalty of expulsion, why he was observed wearing a particular piece of clothing or seen running around with a ‘bad crowd’ over the weekend.” The court also notes that R.W. didn’t actually “display” any of the photos. R.W. has a good chance of persuading the court to set aside the expulsion, but this may not end up being of much use to him. (At the time of the summary judgment ruling, R.W. was well into the school year at another school. He can only get money damages against the individual defendants, and the court found them to be protected by qualified immunity. While he may get equitable relief, this could come too little too late.)

The Virginia AG’s opinion is somewhat narrow, and hints at the unreasonableness of the search in this case. Although the opinion only looks at the hypothetical posed by a specific factual scenario, it OKs a search of the contents of the phone based on a report from a student that a message from another student that is “either threatening or criminal or violates the school’s bullying policy” – i.e., when the contents of the phone are related to the alleged violation in the first place. It was tough to make that argument here, although the court allowed the individual defendants to slide based on its view that the law was not clearly established.