WOONSOCKET – Jailin Alarcon, a seventh-grader at Woonsocket Middle School, didn’t know what to expect when Judge Janette A. Bertness suddenly walked over to her, grabbed a folder off her desk and started sifting through the contents.
Bertness, an associate judge of the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation Court, and Providence attorney Jeffrey M. Biolchini, were visiting social studies teacher ToniMarie Campopiano’s students Friday as part of the school’s annual Law Day program.
The topic of discussion was the Fourth Amendment and the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Campopiano’s wide-eyed students, which included Adaline Rhan, Ariel Lachance, Stephanie Moreau, Aidan Ellis, Alexis Gonzalez, April Visouveth and Madison Jackson, watched as Bertness held the folder up in the air and explained that under the Fourth Amendment, the police cannot search someone's person, house, papers, or effects without having a good reason.
“If you are out on the street walking or sitting at home minding your own business and a policeman walks in, can he search you for no reason? No,” said Bertness.
“Are there any situations when they can do that?” she then asked the students.
“If you have a warrant,” replied student Marshall Barton.
“Yes, but you cannot take anything from someone without a good reason,” Bertness explained. “You have to have what is called probable cause, which means you have to have a good reason to believe that someone has broken the law. The police cannot do anything until they convince a judge like me that they have probable cause, and then they can get a warrant which gives them permission to search.”
Biolchini talked to the students about a 1985 decision by the Supreme Court in the case of New Jersey v. T.L.O., which addressed the constitutionality of a search of a public high school student for contraband after she was caught smoking. A subsequent search of her purse revealed drug paraphernalia, marijuana, and documentation of drug sales.
The student was charged as a juvenile for the drugs and paraphernalia found in the search. She fought the search, claiming it violated her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches. The Court, in a 6-3 ruling, held that the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
“This happened many years ago, but it is still good law,” he said.
This is the tenth year Campopiano has invited attorneys and judges to visit the school and talk to her students about the American legal system. The program not only celebrates Law Day – which falls on Tuesday — but compliments the school’s civics and social studies curriculum.
Recognized nationally, Law Day is designed to bring judges, lawyers and schools together to teach students about the law and the legal system, and to celebrate the American heritage of liberty, justice and equality.
This year's theme is "Realizing the Dream: Equality for All." This year marks the 150th anniversary of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“It’s great fun, very informative and provides an opportunity for the students to interact with different people in the law profession,” she said.
Bertness was first appointed to the Workers' Compensation Court in 1993. She earned her bachelor of arts in chemistry from Clark University in 1979 and her masters of science in organic chemistry from Brown University in 1981. She then earned her Juris Docto degree from Suffolk Law School in 1986.
Bertness worked as a clerk for Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Florence K. Murray after graduating from law school. She then worked in private practice for Roberts, Carroll, Feldstein and Pierce as a litigation associate. She also worked as a lobbyist for private industry and industrial trade groups from 1988 to 1992.
Biolchini is a criminal defense and business litigation attorney with the Providence law firm of Radcliff, Harten and Burke. A former law clerk in the Massachusetts Superior Court, he spent two years with the U.S. Attorney's Office as an intern focusing on criminal appellate issues in the Ninth Circuit. Prior to that, he worked as an extern in United States District Court researching civil rights claims, and served on the Gonzaga Law Review Executive Board. He is admitted to practice in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, serves on the editorial board of the Rhode Island Bar Journal, and is a member of the American Bar Association and Justinian Law Society.
This was Biolchini’s second consecutive Law Day visit to Woonsocket Middle School.
“You have some students who like to answer all the questions then you have others who want to answer, but may be too shy or unsure, so it’s always gratifying when you can get those students to open up,” he said.