Court limits use of drug-detecting dogs in schools

Court limits use of drug-detecting dogs in schools

(Mont.) Schools in Montana are reevaluating drug-free enforcement policies after a judge dismissed a marijuana possession charge filed against a student and ordered restrictions on the use of drug-sniffing dogs.

Although the student was found to have had plastic bags of marijuana and two pipes, as well as cigarillos underneath the driver’s seat of his car, District Judge James Haynes of Ravalli County found earlier this month that the school did not have proof of a wide-scale drug problem on campus or other factors that would warrant the use of the dogs.

Some law enforcement officials say the ruling could curtail the use of drug-detecting dogs as a proactive measure before rampant drug use on campus becomes an issue. Advocates for student privacy, however, agree with Judge Haynes, that without probable cause, the random searches are illegal.

“There was no evidence on the record that the district had a substantial drug problem, or any drug problem at all, nor was there some compelling evidence shown by the district that it had a particularized suspicion that this student could have drugs in his position by way of having them in his car,” Jon Ellingson, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, said in an interview. “There needs to be one or the other in order to use a drug sniffing dog in schools.”

Similar cases have ended in similar decisions in states including California, Illinois, New Mexico, Maryland, Washington and South Dakota as schools grapple with how to prevent students from bringing drugs onto school grounds.

 According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than half of all students have tried drugs at least once by the time they were in 12th grade, leading more administrators to turn to drug dogs to sniff out contraband in classrooms and parking lots.

Currently, about 1,200 school districts in 19 states work with Interquest Group, Inc., a Houston-based company that trains and contracts drug-sniffing dogs that can also detect guns and explosives during random inspections. Florence-Carlton High School is one of the approximately 8,000 campuses working with Interquest.

Those who oppose the use of these dogs say it violates individual privacy, creates a climate of fear and distrust between teachers and students, and makes it hard to differentiate between a schoolyard and a prison yard. On the other hand, supporters of their use argue that safety in schools should be the first priority, and that the dogs’ presence can help ensure children’s wellbeing.

Despite the numerous instances where the use of drug sniffing dogs has been found to be illegal in certain cases, Ellingson said the method is not without merit. In Ravalli County, had the school shown a well-documented drug problem, the court might have come to a different conclusion, he said, because a district’s need to maintain order and keep the schools drug-free can trump students’ constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy under certain circumstances.

The student in this case had been found smoking marijuana in his car a week prior to the search at his high school. According to court records, a sheriff’s deputy saw him sitting in his car in a cul-de-sac in Florence late at night–noting that his car looked out of place–and shone a spotlight on the student’s car before walking over to it. The officer issued a misdemeanor citation after smelling weed coming from inside the car when the student opened his door and seized two jars of marijuana.

However, the judge suppressed that evidence during the case with Florence-Carlton High after the boy’s attorney argued the drug was found during an illegal seizure, where his client was stopped with no reason to believe he had committed a crime.

Missoula attorney Elizabeth Kaleva, who represents school districts across the state, told the Missoulian that she will be keeping tabs on what happens with the student’s case and recommend schools refrain from using drug-sniffing dogs until further notice.

Experts from the National School Safety Center note that the canines should not be school administrators' first or even second option, but that they must have a reason to begin the random searches and demonstrate that other methods of combating drugs on campus have been insufficient–a standard supported by the ACLU of Montana.

“We think the decision was the right call, but it’s a holding that currently only holds in Ravalli County because it was decided in district court, so it won’t be until that holding is affirmed by the Montana Supreme Court that it becomes the law of the land here,” Ellingson said. “Having said that, I do think smart school districts will be looking at their rules and regulations to try to tailor them so they couldn’t be struck down similarly to Florence-Carlton School District.”

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