OPINION | Barry Richard: Mass. High Court Ruling Places Schools in Danger
Anyone with a child in a Massachusetts school, public or private should be terrified and outraged by what the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did this week.
The SJC threw out the firearms and drug convictions of a man who showed up at Milton High School two years ago armed with a loaded handgun. Why? The Justices say police lacked a "reasonable belief that the defendant was armed and dangerous" before they searched his backpack where the weapon was found along with a bag of weed, a bottle of booze and a scale.
School officials became suspicious when 19 year old Jonathan Villagran of Watertown showed up at the school and tried to gain entrance by telling an administrator that he needed to use a restroom. He later claimed to be a student and then said he was there to meet a girl who didn't attend the school. Suspecting that Villagran was up to no good they brought him inside and questioned him until police arrived.
School officials noted that Villagran reeked of weed and booze. Police concurred prompting Sergeant Kristen Murphy to pat Villagran down leading to the discovery of a bag of marijuana and nearly three thousand dollars in cash in his pants pockets. Sergeant Murphy then searched Villagran's backpack where she discovered the bottle, the dope, the scale and the gun.
Former Justice Geraldine Hines, who retired from the court earlier this month wrote for the majority that Sergeant Murphy had no authority to search Villagran's backpack;
"We acknowledge that the defendant, a nonstudent, was on school property surrounded by school officials who believed he possessed contraband of some sort. When Murphy arrived, however, she knew only that school officials had a male nonstudent detained in the conference room and that the police had been called for assistance in the matter."
"The principal voiced his strong suspicions of the defendant, but neither he nor the vice-principal reported any conduct suggestive of criminal activity. The odor of marijuana, which Murphy appreciated upon her entry into the conference room, also was not sufficient to support reasonable suspicion of criminal activity."
Justice Elspeth Cypher joined in the dissent of Justice David Lowy, who wrote for the minority that it was "eminently reasonable --and prudent -- in these circumstances" to frisk the backpack for weapons. Lowy said privacy expectations are different at schools.
Given that we live in a post-Columbine, post-Newtown world, logic would dictate that police would have whatever authority is necessary to prevent another massacre of innocent children. Offending an intoxicated intruder to a school is an acceptable price to pay to prevent another school shooting.
Officials at Milton High and Sergeant Murphy should be applauded for their handling of this matter. How many lives may have been lost had that gun not been discovered?
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's decision to put an individual's rights against those of an entire school full of students and staff is wrong. Next time we may not be as lucky.
Content credit to Andy Metzger and the STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
Editor's Note: Barry Richard is the afternoon host on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from Noon-3pm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.