SJC considers whether Boston police can use student IDs in criminal investigations

The state’s highest court today ordered a juvenile court judge to explore whether the privacy rights of Boston public school students are violated when their student ID cards are given to Boston police for use in photo arrays.

In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court said it needed more information from the judge before it could decide the constitutionality of the practice, which was used in 2009 as police investigated the armed robbery of a Boston public school student by a fellow student.

During that investigation, a Boston police officer assigned to an unidentified Boston high school obtained the student identification card of the suspect in the case. Police also obtained the ID cards of other students for an array of photos that was to be shown to the victim to see if the victim could pick out the robber.

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But Suffolk County Juvenile Court Judge Leslie Harris barred police and Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office from using the photo array as evidence against the juvenile being prosecuted, the SJC said.

Harris, the SJC said, concluded the student had a “reasonable expectation of privacy’’ that his educational records are protected from disclosure under federal and state privacy laws and regulations. Harris ruled that police should have obtained the ID photo only after they obtained a warrant explicitly authorizing them to seize and use the image in the photo array.

Writing for the SJC, Justice Margot Botsford said Harris made his decision too quickly and without enough information. The court threw out his ruling and ordered the court to conduct further inquiry into the practice.

“Without evidence regarding how the student identification cards and photographs are created and how and by whom they are used within and outside of the school, we are not in a position to review the judge’s conclusion that the juvenile had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the photograph and the legal consequences that follow from such a conclusion,’’ Botsford wrote.

Botsford added that when a new hearing is held, “such evidence might also help resolve whether the student identification card and photograph form part of the confidential ‘student record’ under State and Federal education regulations.’’

She added, “if they are part of the student record, that fact would also bear on whether the juvenile had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the photograph.”

District attorney’s spokesman Jake Wark said today that the armed robbery case is still active and that prosecutors intend to pursue the case, and that they are prepared to push for the use of the student ID card in that case.

“In the longer term, we expect to work with police and educators to ensure that law enforcement has access to the tools they need to protect school children from violent offenders,’’ he said in an e-mailed statement.