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Ziegler v. Martin County School District, Dkt. No. 15-11441 (11th Cir. 2016).

Facts:  When a party bus carrying approximately 40 students arrived at the Junior/Senior Prom, the school’s dean of students searched the bus and found an empty bottle of champagne.  The students denied knowledge of the champagne, but the bus driver said it belonged to the students.  The dean then decided to test each of the students for alcohol using a breathalyzer.  However, because there weren’t enough mouth pieces and the person qualified to administer the breathalyzer was not on site, the students were made to wait outside for about an hour.  School administrators also denied the students’ requests to call their parents so they could go home.  When all of the students were finally tested, none tested positive and the prom had concluded.  Meanwhile, two students waiting to be tested were heard using profanity, which violated a Zero-Tolerance Policy on profanity and resulted in a three-day suspension for each student.  Nine of the students filed suit against the school district, claiming violations of their constitutional rights. The trial court granted judgment in favor of the District on each of the claims and the students appealed.

Ruling:   The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judgment in favor of the school district.  The search of the party bus did not violate the students’ Fourth Amendment right to unreasonable searches and seizures because the students did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the rental party bus.  The students only rode the bus one way to prom; they left no belongings on the bus; and they did not intend to return to the bus.  In addition, the bus driver consented to the search of the bus.  Detaining the students while they waited to be tested did not violate the students’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures because school officials (1) had a reasonable basis for believing that the students had violated prom rules and state law, and (2) the detention was reasonable in scope.

The appeals court next considered whether the Fourth Amendment was violated by continuing to detain the students outside of prom after they tested drug and alcohol-free.  The students alleged that, even after the breathalyzer results were negative, they were made to wait until all students were tested.  The court of appeals held that, although there had not previously been a case directly on point, this could violate the Fourth Amendment.  The courts stated:  “We now hold, when government officials need to conduct breathalyzer or urine tests on students, the testing must be accomplished in a reasonably expeditious time period; once exonerated by the test, the student must be free to go…. When a student is tested as alcohol and drug free, there is no justification for continuing to detain the student with such definitive exculpatory evidence.”  The appeals court concluded that each student from the bus who tested alcohol free should have been free to leave without being detained until all the students had been tested.  While the post-testing detention violated Fourth Amendment standards, because there had been no clear legal precedent establishing that point at the time of the events in this case, the school officials were granted qualified immunity on that Fourth Amendment claim.

The Court rejected First Amendment claims brought by the students who were suspended for using profanity.  The court observed that the students were on notice of the school’s policy prohibiting profanity and that school rules would be enforced at the prom.  Because the student’s knowingly failed to abide by school rules, their First Amendment claim failed.  The court also rejected a student’s First Amendment retaliation claim stemming from being called to the dean’s office after speaking to news media about these events.  The retaliation claim failed because the student did not suffer any constitutionally-protected adverse action because she was only called to the administrators’ office and was not disciplined in any way.


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