Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.
The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed a decision unanimously in which J.G. challenged a juvenile court’s decision ruling him delinquent after it was discovered he had a handgun on school grounds as a second-time juvenile defender. J.G. argued the lower court erred because the gun was found during an unreasonable search of his property at the school.
The case looks into the legality of searching a student. The appeals court then looked into precedents set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O in 1985. That ruling focused on whether the search was justified from the beginning, while also looking at whether the search was within the scope of the circumstances.
In 2018, J.G. was adjudicated delinquent by a juvenile court for two offenses including felony menacing and being a juvenile in possession of a handgun. After this, the school developed a safety plan for J.G. In 2019, J.G. was involved in motor vehicle theft and his companion unlawfully had a firearm during the theft, according to court records. Following this, the school’s safety plan was amended to include daily searches after J.G. was released from juvenile detention.
J.G. then enrolled in the same high school for the 2019-2020 school year.
Three days into school, J.G. didn’t comply with orders to search his backpack which the school resource officer said was part of the safety plan from the 2018-2019 school year, not because the student was acting suspicious. J.G. was placed in a security room, but he didn’t want authorities searching his backpack. The student was then restrained as the backpack was subsequently removed and a loaded handgun was found inside. J.G. was arrested.
During a hearing, J.G. argued for the suppression of the handgun because there was no reasonable suspicion that would lead to a search, the safety plan didn’t amount to consent, and the safety plan was no longer in effect. The juvenile court denied that motion and the case went to trial. J.G. was then adjudicated delinquent for being in possession of a handgun as a second-time juvenile offender, while also having a weapon at school. J.G. then appealed the suppression act of this case.
The appeals court ruled a search of a student is justified if a school official believes it will bring forward evidence the student is violating school rules. The appeals court also noted that a search could be justified without having suspicion if the student does not have a high expectation of privacy — in this case the high school had already implemented a safety plan for J.G., which included searches.
The appeals court ruled the Fourth Amendment is relaxed because school officials need more freedom making sure a school is operating properly. J.G. had also argued the school safety plan didn’t prohibit him from carrying a backpack, the safety plan expired after the 2018-2019 school year and the plan was founded on prior offenses and couldn’t provide reasonable suspicion.
The appeals court determined it didn’t matter if the safety plan included the prohibition of a backpack, as it already contained a search requirement. The school resource officer also testified that the safety plan was still in effect for the new school year. The court also noted there was no expiration date on the plan. The appeals court added the case was permissible in its scope as officials tried to conduct a routine search, but were refused.
The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
In this case, the appeals court vacated J.O.’s adjudication for unlawful sexual contact because the evidence was insufficient in proving J.O. was acting for the purpose of sexual gratification or abuse.
Furthermore, the appeals court added the trier of fact needs to consider the maturity and juvenile’s age before inferring whether an act was done with a sexual purpose. The court added a clarification that it is often inappropriate to compare a juvenile’s act with that of an adult when it comes to intent.
In 2019 J.O. was accused of trying to touch M.L. by the lockers. Both students were 11 years old.
M.L. told a teacher that J.O. touched her in a sexual way and was saying sexual things. M.L. never said what those things were. The incident was then reported to the principal.
M.L. added J.O. never touched her under the clothes. M.L. also later testified at trial that J.O. didn’t say anything to her when he was accused of trying to touch her by the lockers.
The juvenile court concluded that J.O. knowingly acted in a sexual way for gratification. J.O. then received one year of probation.
The Colorado Court of Appeals disagreed with that finding. On appeal, J.O. doesn’t contend the evidence was inefficient to establish he touched M.L.’s clothing inappropriately without consent. J.O. argues there wasn’t enough evidence to say that he was acting in a sexual way.
The court found the legislature never intended the act of touching someone’s intimate parts without consent to always be part of unlawful sexual contact. Instead, the legislature included language concerning sexual arousal, gratification, or abuse.
Looking further into the case, the appeals court found there’s no direct evidence J.O. was doing this for sexual gratification. The appeals court does say that a juvenile is capable of assaulting someone for sexual gratification.
The people contended that multiple factors suggest sexual gratification from J.O. The people asserted J.O. was not a young child at 11 years old, he was accused of touching intimate parts covered by clothing, M.L. said J.O. made sexual comments to her and J.O. touched M.L. after indicating he wanted a relationship with her but was rejected.
The appeals court rejected the relationship evidence, citing the only evidence brought forward about this relationship involved M.L. not wanting to be friends with J.O. anymore, and nothing of a romantic or sexual nature.
The appeals court continued saying there’s no indication the juvenile court considered J.O.’s age and maturity level, or “whether the same sexual motivation could be ascribed to his conduct as would be ascribed to the conduct of an adult. (In fairness to the juvenile court, no published Colorado appellate decision previously instructed it to do so.)”
The appeals court noted it didn’t condone J.O.’s behavior or its impact on M.L.