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Supreme Court overturns search of Bellevue student's backpack

The State Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a 2009 search of a student's backpack that yielded an airsoft gun and led to the conviction of a student was not legal, because the school officer was acting in a law enforcement role, requiring him to first obtain a search warrant.

According to a 6-3 court decision, Officer Michael Fry's actions did not fall under an exception that allows school officials to search students without a warrant, therefore the evidence should have been suppressed at trial.

"At the time of the search, Fry was seeking to obtain evidence for criminal prosecution, not evidence for informal school discipline," Judge Susan Owens wrote in the majority opinion. "Further, the search was not to maintain order because (the student) was being removed from school regardless."

Court documents say that the student was arrested in 2009 in the bathroom of Robinswood High School, a now closed alternative school, when the school resource officer witnessed the student handling marijuana. The officer was contracted from the Bellevue Police Department. He placed the student under arrest, and while waiting for backup became suspicious of the contents of the student's backpack. He then searched it and founded a replica Beretta air soft gun.

The student and his legal team did not dispute what was found, but in the manner it was pursued. After losing the case at three different levels, the Supreme Court was the first to agree with the student.

This is because previous cases indicate the officer was in the right, the three dissenting judges wrote. The dissenting judges argued that the school resource officer remains a school official whether he is acting in a law enforcement capacity or not because he is working to maintain order within the school for an infraction committed on its ground.

Furthermore, the judges argued, the ruling will put restrict school resources officers and put more pressure on faculty to police students.

"Schools will now be dissuaded from using school resource officers to detect and intercept violations of school rules or the law," Judge Debra Stevens wrote in the dissenting opinion. "Instead, teachers and other school administrators who have reasonable suspicion but lack probable cause, must conduct such searches themselves. The constitution does not demand such foolhardiness, nor is it necessarily conducive to respect for student privacy."

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