The Rhode Island ACLU today filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the appeal by a group of Central Falls High School students who were subject to a controversial search by Coventry Police after a school soccer game in 2006. Last year, a federal judge dismissed the students’ lawsuit, ruling that the police could have reasonably believed that the search did not violate the students’ constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The ACLU brief, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit by volunteer attorney Thomas Bender, urges the court to reverse that ruling. The brief argues that the lower court’s decision presents a “constitutionally untenable situation” that “effectively frees local police to conduct criminal investigative searches on any public school student simply by obtaining the consent of an official of that student’s school.”

Leaving the field after a soccer match with Coventry High School, the Central Falls High School boy’s soccer team was followed by an angry crowd accusing them in loud, sometimes racially tinged, tones of stealing iPods and cell phones from the boy’s locker room. Shortly thereafter, four police cars officers and cruisers arrived. Although the team’s coach advised the police that he had personally checked the students and their belongings, the officers asked the coach for permission to search the Central Falls players themselves, and he agreed. Each player then was ordered off the bus with their bags and lined up facing the shouting mob. Without regard to which players had actually used the locker room prior to the match, the officers searched the bags of every player, and asked some of the players to empty their pockets, lift up their shirts, and stretch open their pants. In addition, having no description of the missing devices, when the officers found a cell phone or iPod they would display it to the angry crowd to see if anyone recognized it. The officers also asked the Central Falls players for personal information that could be found on the devices to identify them, and then searched the devices for this information. None of the stolen items was found.

The police officers admitted there was no “probable cause” or even “reasonable suspicion” to believe the Central Falls players had stolen the items in question to justify a search that would comply with the Fourth Amendment. The sole authority they relied on for the search was the coach’s consent. This, the ACLU brief argues, was clearly improper.

The brief notes that the case raises a “very basic and fundamental question … how can a school official constitutionally give consent to a police officer to conduct a search of a student that the school official could not constitutionally conduct under the Fourth Amendment?” The ACLU says the clear is answer is that they could not, pointing to a seminal twenty-five year old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held that school officials themselves need reasonable suspicion before searching a student or his or her belongings. The brief says a ruling from the First Circuit in support of the students is critical to “guide the future conduct of local police and school departments, and to deter the future use of such an investigatory practice.”

The ACLU brief concludes by arguing that “the police officers could not reasonably believe that the probable cause requirement necessary to conduct these searches could be circumvented by obtaining the ‘consent’ of another state actor also bound by the strictures of the Fourth Amendment. As a consequence, the searches violated the Fourth Amendment, an objectively reasonable officer should have known that, and the police officer defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity.”

Although not addressed in the ACLU’s brief, claims of racial bias also permeate the incident. The Central Falls team was virtually all Latino, and some members pointed to discriminatory comments directed at them both during the game and when confronted with the allegations of theft.