Private school students do not have the same protections against unreasonable searches as students who attend public schools, the state's highest court said yesterday.
The Supreme Judicial Court drew a distinction between public and private school officials in the case of three Catholic high school students who were arrested after drugs and alcohol were found in their hotel room during a school ski trip in 2003.
The court said public school officials are agents of the state and, therefore, are subject to the rule against unreasonable searches contained in the Fourth Amendment. But the court said the same protections do not apply in private schools.
"Fourth Amendment protection does not apply to searches conducted by persons who are not state agents," the court ruled in a 7-to-0 decision.
The case involved three students at Bishop Stang High School, a North Dartmouth school operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River, who went on a school-sponsored ski trip to the Berkshires in March 2003.
When school officials learned some students had been in their hotel room unsupervised, two chaperones and the school principal searched the room and found alcohol and pipes.
State Police questioned the youths, and each was charged with possession of marijuana and cocaine and with being a minor in possession of alcohol.
Lawyers for the youths argued that the search of their room by school officials was prohibited by the Fourth Amendment and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, which guarantees similar protections from unreasonable searches and seizures. They said school officials did not have reasonable suspicion to believe there was contraband in the room before they searched.
A lower court judge agreed and suppressed the evidence, but state prosecutors appealed.
Tripp's lawyer, Mark Miliotis, said he was disappointed by the SJC ruling because it appears to give private school officials no restrictions on when they can conduct searches of students and their belongings.
"It has a huge effect. I think people have thought there were some limitations on private school officials, and this says there aren't," Miliotis said.
Miliotis said the students involved graduated from Bishop Stang several years ago. The SJC's ruling means prosecutors will now be allowed to use the evidence seized in the search if the case goes to trial.
Officials at Bishop Stang did not immediately return calls seeking comment.