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Statement from Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan

Statement from Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan

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Published by GazetteNET
Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan's letter to Police Chief Russell Sienkiewicz and Superintendent Brian Salzer about safety pledge copied by Northampton High School students.
Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan's letter to Police Chief Russell Sienkiewicz and Superintendent Brian Salzer about safety pledge copied by Northampton High School students.

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Published by: GazetteNET on Jan 14, 2013
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Toton-tonfuealtti of glizmsarliusette
(413) 586-9225
(413) 584-3635
January 14, 2013
Chief Russell SienkiewiczNorthampton Police Department
29 Center St.
Northampton, MA 01060Superintendent Brian SalzerNorthampton School System
212 Main St.
Northampton, MA 01060Dear Chief Sienkiewicz and Superintendent Salzer:This letter is a more detailed follow-up to oral advice that this Office providedwhen contacted last month concerning the propriety of inviting Northampton HighSchool students to copy a safety pledge. The impetus for the pledge was the discovery ofa threatening note in the school less than a week after the mass shooting in Connecticut.As a member of this Office earlier counseled, in light of the frightening circumstancespresented, the solicitation of written pledges was a prudent and legally justifiable effort toprotect the school population by identifying the note's author.
On Friday, December 14, 2012, a 20-year old gunman entered the Sandy HookElementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and shot to death 20 first-grade studentsand six faculty members, before taking his own life.' In response to the massacre,schools across the country increased security as students and staff returned to school onMonday, December 17, after a weekend of wall-to-wall coverage of the shootings in the
Officials were concerned with the possibility of emulators. The "copycat
phenomenon" is a recognized phenomenon,
which was evident in the recent arrest of a
1 N.R. Kleinfield,
Gunman Took Big Supply of Ammunition to School After Killing Mother at Home,
N.Y.Times, Dec. 16, 2012.
Anthony Fioriglio and Adrienne LaFrance ,
Post-Sandy Hook, School Security Beefed Up Around the
Long Beach Post-Telegram, Jan. 3, 2012.
Nina Lindberg, Eila Sailas, and Riittakertuu Kaltiala-Heino,
The copycat phenomenon after two Finnish
school shootings: an adolescent psychiatric perspective,
BMC Psychiatry Vol. 12, July 28, 2012.
20-year-old Missouri man who allegedly planned a movie-theater shooting comparable tothat in Aurora, Colorado.
There was also a preexisting concern about potential violencerelating to the well-publicized end of the Maya calendar on December 21.
In the early afternoon of Wednesday, December 19, a Northampton High Schoolstudent discovered a threatening note in a bathroom. Because there is an ongoinginvestigation, the particulars of the note cannot be provided at this time. Suffice it to saythat the contents readily evoke comparison to the Sandy Hook massacre. Due to thenature of the note, the Northampton police were immediately contacted and supervised acontrolled dismissal of the students that day.After consulting with the Northampton police and the District Attorney's Office,school personnel devised a pledge to which the students at the high school would beinvited to subscribe. The pledge affirms that the student takes these types of threatsseriously and shares the concern with the administration and the police for the safety of
the school:
In the wake of recent acts in schools including the school shooting inConnecticut and the recent threat here at the high school, I
ith concern for myself, my classmates, and my school,pledge that I take these incidents seriously. With this in mind I understandthat it is not only important to be able to identify whomever may make anytype of these threats, for the safety of the school, but also for the safetyand concern of the individual making the threat. Any information I mayhave or may come across will be passed along to the appropriate school
staff members.
On the morning of December 21, many students agreed to write out the pledgeas read aloud by a classroom teacher. Others declined. The pledges will be retained bythe Northampton police and will not be used outside this particular investigation.
Legal Analysis
Students do not shed their constitutional rights by entering a school. They retaintheir rights under federal and state law to be free from "unreasonable" searches and
The "ultimate touchstone" of both the Fourth Amendment of the United States
Heather Hollingworth,
Man plotted Twilight' attack similar to Colorado massacre: cops,
AssociatedPress, Nov. 16, 2012.
Greg Toppo,
Mich. schools close amid threats tied to Maya calendar,
USA Today, Dec. 19, 2012("School officials nationwide planned to beef up security on Friday — and in a few cases hastily canceledclasses for the rest of the week — amid rumored threats of violence, some related to doomsday scenariosbased on the Maya calendar").
Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution ("The right of the people to be secure in their persons,houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated"). Art. 14 ofthe Massachusetts Declaration of Rights ("Every subject has a right to be secure from all unreasonablesearches, and seizures, of his person, his houses, his papers, and all his possessions").
Constitution and art. 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights is "reasonableness."
The question here, then, is whether the solicitation of written pledges from the studentswas "reasonable." Due to the gravity of the threat, and the context in which it was made,this minimally intrusive action was reasonable and, thus, legally permissible.Our state Supreme Court has held that students do not have an expectation ofprivacy in their handwriting.
In that case (Buccella), high school officials had providedthe police with handwriting samples to help identify the student responsible forvandalizing a school room and scrawling racial slurs on a blackboard. Handwriting,reasoned the court, is "repeatedly shown to the public, and there is no more expectationof privacy in the physical characteristics of a person's script than there is in the tone ofhis voice."
Nonetheless, students may expect that papers turned in to school personnel, suchas the homework in Buccella, will not be disseminated beyond the school setting. But a"mere expectation that the person to whom an item is entrusted will use it for limitedpurposes and not reveal it to others does not give rise to a reasonable expectation ofprivacy under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution."
The court in
Buccella assumed, without deciding, that a student would have such an expectation inthose particular writing samples because homework is compulsory (but concluded thatthe actions of the school officials "easily" met the standard of reasonableness based onthe nature of the crime and "minimal intrusion" of student's privacy).
The pledges
involved here, by contrast, were not compulsory. But even assuming that the studentshad a reasonable expectation that the pledges would not be disclosed outside the school,the actions were still permissible.Ordinarily, the police must have a particularized reason to believe that anindividual person was involved in criminality to justify a search or seizure. But "whenurgent considerations of the public safety require compromise with the normal principlesconstraining law enforcement, the normal principles may have to bend."
"Our courts
have held that the need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury is justificationfor what would be otherwise illegal, absent an exigency or emergency."
For example,
the police may set up dragnet-style roadblock to apprehend a dangerous gunman.
magnitude of a threatened harm may demand a response regardless of the presence orabsence of particularized suspicion of individual wrongdoing.
Id., quoting
United States v. Mara,
410 U.S. 19, 21 (1973).
Id. at 484.ti Id. at 484-485.
Edmond v. Goldsmith,
183 F.3d 659, 663
Cir. 1999),
aff d,
531 U.S. 32 (2000).
Commonwealth v. Samuel,
80 Mass. App. Ct. 560, 562-563 (2011).
Commonwealth v. Grant,
57 Mass. App. Ct. 334 (2003).
See also Edmond v. Goldsmith, supra
("Wemay assume that if the Indianapolis police had a credible tip that a car loaded with dynamite and driven byan unidentified terrorist was en route to downtown Indianapolis, they would not be violating theConstitution if they blocked all the roads to the downtown area even though this would amount to stoppingthousands of drivers without suspecting any one of them of criminal activity").
Commonwealth v. Entwistle,
463 Mass. 205, 213 (2012).
Commonwealth v. Buccella,
434 Mass. 473, 476 (2001).

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