ACLU of New Mexico Sues School District Over Use of Drug Sniffing Dogs to Search Students

Affiliate: ACLU of New Mexico
May 2, 2001 12:00 am

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ALBUQUERQUE –The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico today filed a lawsuit against Lordsburg school officials to stop them from using drug-detecting dogs to randomly sweep students for illicit substances in Lordsburg elementary, middle and high schools.

“Protecting students from drugs shouldn’t mean that schools run roughshod over students’ constitutional rights,” said Peter Simonson, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Mexico. “The apparent intent of these random drug sweeps is not to cull out individual offenders but to terrorize students into submission to avoid future problems. A practice like this is better suited to our prisons than our public schools.”

During the sweeps, school administrators “lock down” classrooms and require students to remain in their seats while a dog-handler walks a dog up and down the rows of students. The dog sniffs as close as inches away from each student and even directly on the student’s body. If the dog “alerts,” the school administrator searches the student further.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public schools may use drug-detecting dogs to search the outside of students’ cars and lockers, ACLU cooperating attorney Jane Gagne said that the use of dogs to randomly sweep for drugs violates students’ constitutional rights.

“The ACLU believes that public schools shouldn’t use drug dogs at all, but if they do, the law requires that they have reasonable suspicion that a specific student has drugs,” she explained. “Forcing a classroom full of students to remain in their seats while a dog sniffs their bodies is not only highly intrusive, but also humiliating and frightening.”

Since 1999, Lordsburg Municipal Schools have subjected students in grades 5 through 12 to at least one dog sweep per month. One plaintiff in the lawsuit, Michael Ruiz, was bitten by a dog in the pants pocket even though he was found to be carrying no illegal substances. Other times dogs have alerted to burritos and other food that was in students’ backpacks.

Three families are named as plaintiffs in the suit, including the children of Carolyn and David Whipple, Sandra and Elias Ruiz, Jr., and Alex and Naomi De la Garza.

The complaint was filed in the New Mexico Federal District Court against the Lordsburg Municipal Schools Board of Education and the principals of Lordsburg High School, Lori Cole, and Dugan-Tarango Middle School, Diana May-Diaz. The lawsuit seeks nominal damages to vindicate the deprivation of the plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights.

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