Police defend actions at NSA

Published 12:28 am Saturday, March 28, 2009

Suffolk Police are defending their actions in last week’s drug sweep at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, after the school’s headmaster sent out a letter saying he was “concerned” about the way police had handled the situation.

Search warrants for the 23 student cars alerted on by police dogs indicated that one car contained marijuana, and a second car contained suspected marijuana. Suffolk Police Capt. Stephanie Burch said Friday that at least seven vehicles in the private school parking lot contained “trace amounts” of marijuana, particularly flakes and seeds.

Only one arrest was made as a result of the sweep. Joshua Mullen, 18, of Chesapeake, was charged with possession of marijuana. He will be arraigned Monday in General District Court.

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In a letter this week, Head of School Colley Bell III said the procedure police took was a departure from what has been done in the past. He also questioned the alerts from the police dogs – calling them “false-positive” – and said he is concerned about the “threshold of evidence” used to charge Mullen.

Burch, however, said police followed all laws and procedures, and were even “overly cautious” by obtaining search warrants for the vehicles, despite court precedents that would have allowed them to search the vehicles without warrants. She also said she does not know what “threshold of evidence” means.

“We followed the police procedures,” Burch said. “We outlined what we would do and how we would do it, and we did not deviate from that.”

The officers and their dogs are certified by the Virginia Police Work Dog Association, according to the search warrants that were filed in Suffolk Circuit Court.

In addition to the marijuana and suspected marijuana police seized, according to the search warrants, police seized a corner of a plastic bag from a third car and a pack of Marlboro cigarettes from a fourth car.

Burch said at least one student claimed to have known about the search in advance, and that more people were notified in advance of the search than police had expected.

The same procedure is followed during drug sweeps at the public schools, Burch said, with one exception: at public schools, the dogs go inside to sniff the lockers, as well. At NSA, they did not, at the request of the administration. However, police were present as the administration opened lockers inside the school.

The trace amounts of drugs found in some of the cars at the school were not enough to warrant pressing charges, Burch said, but police consider it evidence that drugs have been in the car.

Nansemond-Suffolk Academy officials have not responded to requests for comment since they sent home letters to parents on Wednesday apologizing for requesting the search.

In that letter, Bell wrote that he was “deeply sorry for the inconvenience” students and parents experienced as a result of the search, which had been requested by school administrators.

“Even in my early months at NSA,” he wrote, “I have come to know some of these students, and to see them in the midst of this was simply absurd.”

Police searched a total of 25 vehicles during the sweep — two of which belonged to faculty members, who agreed to allow the search without warrants being issued.