This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).







In the Matter of the Welfare of: S. M. L., Child.


Filed August 8, 2006


Wright, Judge


Washington County District Court

File No. 82-19183Y



John M. Stuart, State Public Defender, 2221 University Avenue Southeast, Suite 425, Minneapolis, MN  55414 (for appellant S.M.L.)


Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 1800 Bremer Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN  55101; and


Douglas Johnson, Washington County Attorney, Gregory J. Tavernier, Assistant County Attorney, 14949 62nd Street North, P.O. Box 6, Stillwater, MN  565082-0006 (for respondent State)



            Considered and decided by Wright, Presiding Judge; Shumaker, Judge; and Ross, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N



Appellant, a juvenile, challenges the adjudication of delinquency for possession of a dangerous weapon on school property, arguing that (1) the weapon seized from her backpack must be suppressed because school officials who conducted the search did not have reasonable suspicion that she might be armed; and (2) the evidence is insufficient to support the delinquency adjudication because it does not establish that she knowingly possessed a dangerous weapon.  We affirm. 



On December 16, 2004, Victoria McDougall, dean of students at Forest Lake High School, had a meeting scheduled with appellant-student S.M.L.  When S.M.L. failed to arrive for the meeting, McDougall began looking for S.M.L.  McDougall found S.M.L., who smelled strongly of cigarette smoke, in a school hallway.  When confronted about the smell, S.M.L. admitted that she had been smoking.  Possession and use of tobacco products violates school rules. 

McDougall and S.M.L. returned to McDougall’s office for a search of S.M.L. and her possessions for tobacco products.  S.M.L. emptied her pockets and surrendered a pack of cigarettes.  McDougall then searched S.M.L.’s purse, backpack, and locker.  McDougall found a cigarette lighter in S.M.L.’s purse and a small folding knife in her backpack.  S.M.L. admitted that the knife was hers but stated that she did not realize that the knife was in her backpack.

McDougall turned over the contraband to Forest Lake Police Officer Sean Lafferty, who advised S.M.L. of her rights and interviewed her about the knife.  S.M.L. told Officer Lafferty that she sometimes carried the knife for protection and as a tool.  S.M.L. stated that she had forgotten that the knife was in her backpack. 

            S.M.L. was charged with possession of a dangerous weapon on school property, a violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.66, subd. 1d(a) (2004).  S.M.L. denied the charge and moved to suppress the evidence seized during McDougall’s search of S.M.L. and her backpack.  The district court denied the motion, concluding that, because the search of the backpack was a logical extension of the search of S.M.L.’s purse and its scope was limited to seeking tobacco products and items associated with their use, S.M.L.’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches was not violated.         The district court adjudicated S.M.L. delinquent, placed her on probation, and ordered her to obtain chemical-dependency treatment.  This appeal followed. 




S.M.L. contends that the backpack search violated the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.  When reviewing a district court’s decision regarding the suppression of evidence, we accept the district court’s findings of fact, unless clearly erroneous, but independently review the application of law to the facts as found.  State v. Munson, 594 N.W.2d 128, 135 (Minn. 1999); State v. Saffeels, 484 N.W.2d 429, 430 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. June 1, 1992).

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.  U.S. Const. amend. IV.  This prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures applies to searches conducted by school officials.  New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 333, 105 S. Ct. 733, 738 (1985).  A search conducted by a school official comports with the Fourth Amendment’s protections if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the search will produce evidence of a violation of the law or a school rule.  Id. at 342, 105 S. Ct. at 743.  A school official need not obtain a search warrant before “searching a student who is under their authority.”  Id. at 340, 105 S. Ct. at 742.  Rather, the constitutionality of the search depends on “the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search.”  Id. at 341, 105 S. Ct. at 742.

For our determination of the reasonableness of the search, we first consider whether the “‘action was justified at its inception,’” and second, whether the “search as actually conducted ‘was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.’”  Id. at 341, 105 S. Ct. at 742-43 (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 20, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 1879 (1968)).  An initial justification for the warrantless search generally will arise when a school official has reasonable grounds to suspect that the search will produce evidence that the student has violated or is violating either school rules or the law.  Id. at 342, 105 S. Ct. at 743.  The scope of the search is permissible when the means of conducting the search “are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and [gender] of the student and the nature of the infraction.”  Id.

The initial justification for the search at issue here arose from McDougall’s suspicion that S.M.L. had been smoking based on the “strong smell of smoke” emanating from S.M.L.  When questioned about the odor, S.M.L. admitted to McDougall that she had been smoking.  McDougall advised S.M.L. that a search would be conducted based on the suspicion that S.M.L. possessed tobacco products in violation of school rules.  The circumstances of the encounter between McDougall and S.M.L. established that McDougall had a reasonable suspicion that S.M.L. was in possession of tobacco products.  Accordingly, the search was justified at its inception.   

            The facts and circumstances also demonstrate that the scope of the search was reasonably related to McDougall’s objective of determining whether S.M.L. possessed tobacco products.  McDougall searched the items in S.M.L.’s physical possession at the time of the incident and her school locker.  The items in S.M.L.’s physical possession included her coat, purse, and backpack.  McDougall testified that she conducted a limited search for tobacco products, not a generalized search for other contraband.  And the evidence establishing the manner and scope of the search supports this testimony.  Thus, the search of S.M.L.’s backpack that resulted in the seizure of her knife did not violate the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement for a search of a student at school. 

            S.M.L. argues that, once the cigarettes had been turned over, McDougall needed “new reasonable suspicion of some other prohibited behavior” to justify a continuation of the search.  This argument is without merit.  The record demonstrates that McDougall had a reasonable suspicion that S.M.L. was in possession of tobacco products, and her search of S.M.L.’s belongings proceeded under that suspicion.  The surrender of the cigarettes did not cause McDougall’s reasonable suspicion to dissipate.  Indeed, the continuation of the search resulting in recovery of a cigarette lighter from S.M.L.’s purse provided additional justification to search elsewhere based on the reasonable suspicion that S.M.L. was in possession of additional tobacco products.  

            Citing Terry, S.M.L. also argues that a protective search for weapons was unconstitutional because McDougall did not have a reasonable suspicion that S.M.L. was armed and dangerous.  392 U.S. at 25-26, 88 S. Ct. 1882 (“A search for weapons in the absence of probable cause to arrest, however, must, like any other search, be strictly circumscribed by the exigencies which justify its initiation.”).  This argument is unavailing for two reasons.  First, although a weapon was found during the course of the search, McDougall did not conduct a protective search for weapons.  The sole object of McDougall’s search was evidence of tobacco-product use based on the odor of smoke emanating from S.M.L. and her admission that she had been smoking in violation of school rules prohibiting the use and possession of tobacco products.  Second, although T.L.O. based its analysis on Terry, the T.L.O. court tailored that analysis to searches of students conducted by school officials.  T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 341-42, 105 S. Ct. 742-43.  The violation of a school rule alone can justify the inception of a search of a student by a school official.  Id. at 342, 105 S. Ct. 743. 

            Because the search was justified at its inception and its scope was reasonable under the circumstances, the district court did not err by denying S.M.L.’s motion to suppress the knife.


S.M.L. next contends that the evidence was insufficient to sustain the district court’s delinquency adjudication.  Allegations in a delinquency petition “must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Minn. R. Juv. Delinq. P. 13.06.  When we review a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence to support an adjudication of delinquency, we are “limited to ascertaining whether, given the facts and legitimate inferences, a factfinder could reasonably make that determination.”  In re Welfare of S.M.J., 556 N.W.2d 4, 6 (Minn. App. 1996) (citing State v. Merrill, 274 N.W.2d 99, 111 (Minn. 1978)).  In doing so, we “view the record in the light most favorable to the determination and assume that the factfinder believed the testimony supporting the determination and disbelieved any contrary evidence.”  Id.

            S.M.L. disputes the sufficiency of the evidence to demonstrate that she knew she was in possession of a dangerous weapon on school property in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.66, subd. 1d(a) (2004) (proscribing possession of dangerous weapon while knowingly on school property). 

We first consider whether S.M.L.’s knife was a dangerous weapon.  A dangerous weapon is defined as

any firearm, whether loaded or unloaded, or any device designed as a weapon and capable of producing death or great bodily harm, . . . or other device or instrumentality that, in the manner it is used or intended to be used, is calculated or likely to produce death or great bodily harm, or any fire that is used to produce death or great bodily harm.


Minn. Stat. § 609.02, subd. 6 (2004) (emphasis added).  Officer Lafferty testified that, based on his examination, the knife is “a silver titanium knife with a blade of approximately two inches in length” that can be opened automatically and locked into position.  Based on this testimony and its own examination of the knife, the district court found that

[t]he knife, when in a closed position, has its blade folded into the handle, and it can be locked in that position through the use of a safety lock.  To open the knife, the safety lock must be moved, and an extension of the blade pushed at which time the blade quickly flips open and the very sharp blade is disclosed.  That blade is two inches long.  Once the blade is open and in place, it cannot be returned to the handle and is locked in the open position until the locking device is deliberately moved in a manner which permits the blade to return into the handle.  It clearly appears that the blade cannot be returned to the safety position inside the handle accidentally or without effort. 


The district court then concluded that S.M.L.’s knife is a dangerous weapon “because of how the blade rapidly flips open, how the blade is locked into position once opened, and the sharpness of the blade.”  Given the character and style of the knife, the district court reasonably could conclude that it is a dangerous weapon.    

Next, we consider whether the evidence is sufficient to establish that S.M.L. knew that she was in possession of a dangerous weapon on school property.  S.M.L. does not challenge the finding that she was knowingly on school property at the time of the incident.  Rather, she maintains that she did not knowingly possess the knife while on school property.  Although “knowing possession” is not an explicit statutory requirement, the Minnesota Supreme Court has concluded that the legislature did not intend to eliminate a mens rea requirement for weapons that is “not so inherently dangerous that [an] appellant should be on notice that mere possession would be a crime . . . .”  In re Welfare of C.R.M., 611 NW.2d 802, 810 (Minn. 2000) (contrasting knives with “inherently dangerous” weapons such as “hand grenades”).  Thus, the state must prove as an element of the charged offense that the accused knowingly possessed the dangerous weapon on school property.  See id. (reversing and remanding to the district court to determine “whether appellant had knowledge of possession of the knife while on school property”). 

S.M.L. argues that, because she maintains that she did not know that the knife was in her backpack, the evidence is insufficient to prove that element of the offense.  We disagree.  Although S.M.L. denied knowledge that the knife was in her possession, this denial is subject to the district court’s assessment of its weight and credibility to which we defer.  State v. Johnson, 568 N.W.2d 426, 435 (Minn. 1997) (stating that appellate courts defer to fact-finder’s determinations of evidentiary weight and credibility). 

In a statement to Officer Lafferty, S.M.L. admitted that she sometimes carried the knife for protection or as a tool.  Unlike the facts of C.R.M., in which the knife was found in the student’s coat, S.M.L.’s knife was found in her backpack, an accessory she used specifically for the purpose of transporting items to and from school.  The district court’s finding as to S.M.L.’s knowing possession of a dangerous weapon is based on a reasonable and legitimate inference in light of the entire record.  Accordingly, S.M.L.’s challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the delinquency adjudication for possession of a dangerous weapon on school property fails.