Brian Werries thought his school administration was overreacting after the Columbine massacre. He could not have been closer to the truth.
As a joke for his friends, Brian Werries placed a note in his school locker that said “Bomb’s in other locker, sorry for the trouble.” He expected his friends, who also had access to the locker, to be the only readers of the note. However, after a school-wide locker search, almost everyone in his town knew about the joke, the school board expelled him, and he was facing one to three years in prison. His future looked bleak.
Luckily, he had a good lawyer and a judge who understands that the constitution still applies in the 20th century (and will apply in subsequent centuries). The judge ruled that the search was unconstitutional and thereby prevented the District Attorney from presenting any evidence associated with the search. The DA subsequently dropped the charges.
Brian no longer faces prison but he’s still trying to return to Springfield High School (SHS), of Springfield, Illinois.
Officials take advantage of Columbine
After the Columbine massacre, officials at a school near SHS found graffiti that said, “May 10th Judgement Day.” Officials never discovered who wrote the graffiti and “judgement day” does not automatically imply that there will be a bomb in someone’s locker.
After hearing about the graffiti, the principal of Springfield High School distributed a letter that said, “adolescent threats will have adult consequences.” Ironically, the graffiti generated adult hysteria, which culminated with a school-wide locker search on Sunday, May 9th, the day before “judgement day.” To put the search in perspective, imagine if the government reacted to a bomb threat by searching everyone’s home.
After finding the note, police arrested Werries and charged him with the felony of disorderly conduct. School officials also threw in a punch by claiming that by writing the note, he created a false alarm situationâ€¦even though there is a world of difference between his note and the “judgement day” graffiti. School officials expelled him for the duration of the school year, the subsequent year, and even forbid him from attending a special school for expelled students.
At this point, Werries future did not look good. Not only was he expelled but he was also in jail awaiting a court appearance. He appeared for his bail hearing wearing tattered black pants and a black Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, and Sangamon County jail orange plastic flip-flops. He was released from jail after posting $500 of a $5,000 bond.
The day after the arrest, members of the student body circulated fliers to protest the arrest. SHS principal Chiles immediately forbid the distribution and warned students that they could only distribute fliers outside the school grounds. This may not in fact be true. According to documents published by the ACLU, a school may only, “place reasonable limits on the ‘time, place or manner’ of,” distributing fliers. This means that the students should have negotiated a time and place for distribution.
Armed with a good lawyer, Werries proceeded to attack the government’s criminal case against him. The county’s DA based the disorderly felony charge on the bomb note, which was found during the locker search. To win the case, Peter Wise, Werries’ attorney, focused on the constitutionality of the search rather than the felony charge associated with the note. In other words, Wise questioned whether the entire case could proceed since the note was found during an unconstitutional search.
|[the search] did not come close to meeting the reasonable-suspicion standard established by the courts|
Circuit Judge Leo Zappa agreed with Wise by ruling the search illegal, claiming it did not come close to meeting the reasonable-suspicion standard established by the courts. That is, the police can only search a student if they have a reasonable suspicion that the student committed a crime. The judge then suppressed the bomb note since that standard was not met.
Therefore, the DA could not present any evidence associated with the search, including the note and any statements made by Werries in association with the search. Having lost his evidence, the DA dropped the disorderly felony charge.
“We knew this was going to be a close issue going in,” said Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Schmidt. “I think Judge Zappa issued a learned opinionâ€¦He heard the facts, applied the law to the facts and came to a conclusion.”
School officials remain stubborn
Werries no longer has to worry about prison but he is still suffering from an expulsion. The DA may have dropped his case, but school officials claim that they are entitled to search the lockers since they own them. According to ACLU documents unrelated to the case, the school may be correct:
“We own the lockers,” said SHS principal Harvey Chiles.
According to ACLU documents unrelated to the case, he may be correct:
In some states, courts have ruled that a student’s locker is school property, so the school can search it. But in other states, school officials must have “reasonable suspicion” that you are hiding something illegal before they can search your locker. Your local ACLU can fill you in on your state laws. But here’s a word to the wise: don’t keep anything in your locker that you wouldn’t want other people to see.
Chiles also claims that the state’s school code gives him the authority to search lockers. The code states, “To maintain order and security in the schools, school authorities may inspect and search places and areas such as lockers, desks, parking lots and other school property…as well as personal effects left in those places and areas by students, without notice to or the consent of the student, and without a search warrant.”
“The district is held to a different legal standard under its disciplinary code than the courts are under the criminal code,” said Chiles. However, if the school code is not constitutional, then the principal does not have the right to search all lockers.
|The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Fourth Amendment (protection from unreasonable search and seizure) does apply to searches of public school students by school officials.|
Zappa wrote in his order, “This statute clearly ignores the current case law in the area of searches made by school officials.” He added that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Fourth Amendment (protection from unreasonable search and seizure) does apply to searches of public school students by school officials, and that students do have “a legitimate expectation of privacy regarding their personal effects while at school.”
Judge Zappa “strongly encouraged” the state legislature to amend state law applying to school searches to “accurately reflect the current law on this issue.”
Werries is now seeking a court order to block his expulsion so that he may return to school for his senior year. For this lawsuit, Werries’ attorney argues that the note was not a real bomb threat because he did not show it to anyone. According to the school’s code of conduct, a false alarm must actually be transferred to someone else. In this instance, the note sat in Werries’ locker.
Werries case illustrates how one can dissect criminal charges to prove one’s innocence. First Werries proved that the search was illegal, now he is trying to prove that the note does not constitute a false alarm. He is clearly fighting back on every issue, a tactic that is essential when fighting the government.
SHS should immediately allow Werries back into school. The school should send him a note of apology that should read, “We should not have searched your locker, sorry for the trouble.”
Bill of Rights applies at all times
Throughout this entire case, police and school officials argued that the searches were necessary considering the climate after Columbine.
District Attorney Kelley said, “In light of the Littleton situation, I think that increases the gravity of the offenseâ€¦usually I don’t come to a press conference with a lot of media when we file a disorderly conduct count, so this case is unique.”
Principal Chiles said, “Without question, with the amount of rumors and everything else going around, a blanket search of lockers was fully justified.”
Does this mean, that they can also place Goth students in shackles? Or perhaps body search all students?
Only Judge Zappa remained immune from the hysteria by writing, “This court does not condone the actions of the defendant but must apply the applicable and most current case law to his case.”
The Bill of Rights applies in all situations and is especially important after a massacre, such as Columbine.
If your school freaks out after the next government school massacre and violates your Constitutional rights, keep your cool. You may be expelled and possibly thrown in jail. But like Werries, you can endure that abuse, fight for your Constitutional rights and win!