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Unofficial Opinion 94-9

Unofficial Opinion 94-9

July 12, 1994
To: 

Representative
District 169

Re: 

The use of a metal detector to screen everyone or to randomly screen students as they enter school is not an unreasonable search and thus is not unconstitutional. However, the metal detector could be used in some manner, such as selective screening, which could violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches. If the metal detector is used selectively, school officials should have reasonable cause to believe that the students or individuals selected possess a weapon.

You have asked for an opinion as to whether metal detectors may be used in elementary and secondary schools and what guidelines would be appropriate for their use. It is my unofficial opinion that the use of a metal detector to screen all who enter a school or to screen some randomly selected portion is not unconstitutional.

In reaching this conclusion, I must caution you that this opinion cannot conclusively state all circumstances under which the use of metal detectors would be constitutional because of the nature of questions like this. The reasonableness of a search under the Fourth Amendment is decided by the courts on a case by case basis and we cannot anticipate all of the fact situations which may arise for schools in their use of metal detectors. Cf. United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531, 537 (1985)(reasonableness of the search depends on all the circumstances surrounding the search).

The first inquiry is whether the use of a metal detector constitutes a search. Although the issue is not entirely free from doubt, the cases seem to indicate that the use of a magnetometer or X-ray equipment to determine the presence of a weapon does constitute a search. See, e.g., United States v. Edwards, 498 F.2d 496 (2d Cir. 1974)(use of magnetometer at airport); State v. Dukes, 580 N.Y.S.2d 850 (N.Y. Crim. Ct. 1992). Cal. Op. Att'y Gen. 92-201.

However, the use of these devices has been held to be reasonable and not violative of the Fourth Amendment when it is used to deter students from bringing weapons to school. See Cal. Op. Att'y Gen. 92-201; State v. Dukes, supra. Cf. State v. Young, 234 Ga. 488 (1975).

Metal detector searches are allowed in airports. The basis for allowing these warrantless searches is, in part, that the search is minimally intrusive and the need to prevent danger to air travelers is great. United States v. Edwards, supra. Much the same analysis would apply to metal detector screening in schools. See New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 342 n.8 (1985). The fact that the searches are conducted universally or in some random manner is an important factor in determining that the Constitution is not violated. Id. If not all students are required to submit to the screening and if the students are selected to be searched on some basis other than at random, the search begins to take on more of the nature of an intrusion and a school should have some reasonable cause to believe that the selected individual or group poses a safety risk. Id.

In Georgia, the leading case on school searches is State v. Young, 234 Ga. 488 (1975), in which school officials directed a student who behaved suspiciously to empty his pockets. The Georgia Supreme Court found that the standard for determining when a school official may search is "reasonable cause," not the more stringent "probable cause" standard that applies to law enforcement searches. The absence of a warrant did not render unconstitutional the search in that case. The Young case is consistent with case law from other states and courts which indicates that because of the importance of safety in our schools and "preservation of an atmosphere conducive to education," minimally intrusive magnetometer searches are reasonable. State v. Dukes, 580 N.Y.S.2d at 853.

Therefore it is my unofficial opinion that the use of a metal detector to screen everyone or to randomly screen students as they enter school is not an unreasonable search and thus is not unconstitutional. However, the metal detector could be used in some manner, such as selective screening, which could violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches. If the metal detector is used selectively, school officials should have reasonable cause to believe that the students or groups selected possess a weapon. See State v. Young, supra.

Prepared by:

KATHRYN ALLEN
Senior Assistant Attorney General