SAN FRANCISCO — The state Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the authority of police officers to stop and question young people who they suspect may be truants.
The court, ruling in an Orange County case, held 6 to 1 that such temporary detentions are permissible when officers have "reasonable suspicion" that a youth is absent from school without valid reason.
The justices rejected a 1984 holding by a state appellate court that detentions were proper only when authorities had "actual knowledge" that a young person was truant.
The appeal court ruling had generated protests from education and law enforcement authorities. State Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig contended that, unless overturned, the decision would substantially undermine the enforcement of compulsory education laws.
The justices concluded that the public interest in enforcing truancy laws outweighed any intrusion on individual rights. An objectively reasonable suspicion of truancy--based on youthful appearance and other factors--is a lawful basis for detention, they said.
"Detention for the purpose of investigating whether a person is a truant is, as a practical matter, the only effective means of identifying and locating truants and hence substantially advances the state's compulsory education goals," Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas wrote for the majority.
The court's lone dissenter, Justice Allen E. Broussard, said the majority had gone too far in allowing officers to stop and question anyone they reasonably believed might be as old as 16 or 17.
Persons of that age, Broussard noted, are sometimes permitted by law to attend special classes for as little as four hours a week, while others are validly absent because of part-time jobs or school activities.
Such persons now run the risk of "regular and continued detentions for investigation of truancy," Broussard argued.
The ruling, however, drew immediate praise from Van de Kamp, who had argued that recent anti-truancy campaigns throughout the state had shown indications that they could help reduce daytime crime.
"Reducing truancy is a key to better education and crime reduction," the attorney general said. "Today's decision upholds our ability to enforce truancy laws."
Taylor S. Carey, a state attorney who represented Honig and the state Board of Education in urging the justices to overturn the appellate ruling, also welcomed the decision.
Carey said that such enforcement of truancy laws is essential in preventing further increases in the statewide school dropout rate, recently estimated at 30% among the 1.4 million students attending high schools in California.
"We're fighting for these kids' educational lives," he said. "Kids tend to experiment with truancy: If the heat gets turned up on them, they come back to school--but if there's no such heat, they drop out."
An attorney for the Orange County public defender's office, which represented a youth who was detained as a truancy suspect, warned that the decision could invite unrestricted detentions of people who look youthful.
"What most bothers me is that this creates a class of citizens who are going to be subject to repeated police detention during school days," said Thomas Havlena, supervising attorney for the public defender's appellate section.
"Are young-appearing people going to be stopped because they're driving a van with artwork on it, or wearing a high school sweater or jacket?" he asked.
The case before the court involved a youth identified only as James Edward D. who was stopped in 1983 by police in Newport Beach as a truancy suspect. Unable to produce identification and appearing nervous, the youth was searched for weapons. Police said that the youth resisted and that in the ensuing tussle an envelope containing the illegal drug LSD fell to the ground.
James was charged with possession of an illegal drug. In juvenile court proceedings, he moved to suppress the evidence on the grounds that he had been illegally detained. As a 17-year-old high school graduate, he was not subject to compulsory education laws, he said. The officers lacked a reasonable basis to stop and question him, he said.
The juvenile court held that the detention was not justified and a state Court of Appeal in Santa Ana agreed in a ruling in December, 1984. To stop and question youths in such situations, officers must have "actual knowledge" of truancy, such as a school report containing names of those absent without valid reason, the court said.
The state Supreme Court justices, in their ruling Tuesday, noted at the outset that with some exceptions all children 6 to 16 must attend school full time and that those 16 to 18 must attend at least part time until graduation. To make sure those laws are enforced, the court said, police must be allowed to stop and question young people who reasonably appear to be absent without good excuse.
Truancy laws are not criminal in nature, and police who detain truants are required to take them to their parents or school authorities.
The court, citing its own past rulings and those by the U.S. Supreme Court, stressed that officers must have "specific and articulable facts" leading them to reasonably suspect truancy. A hunch or mere curiosity is not sufficient, it said.