New Jersey v. T.L.O.

469 U.S. 325 (1985)

    Facts : On March 7, 1980, a teacher at Piscataway High School in Middlesex County, New Jersey, discovered two girls smoking in a lavatory. One of the two girls was the respondent T. L. O., who at that time was a 14-year-old high school freshman. Because smoking in the lavatory was a violation of a school rule, the teacher took the two girls to the Principal's office, where they met with Assistant Vice Principal Theodore Choplick. In response to questioning by Mr. Choplick, T. L. O.'s companion admitted that she had violated the rule. T. L. O., however, denied that she had been smoking in the lavatory and claimed that she did not smoke at all.

    Mr. Choplick asked T. L. O. to come into his private office and demanded to see her purse. Opening the purse, he found a pack of cigarettes, which he removed from the purse and held before T. L. O. as he accused her of having lied to him. As he reached into the purse for the cigarettes, Mr. Choplick also noticed a package of cigarette rolling papers.

    In his experience, possession of rolling papers by high school students was closely associated with the use of marijuana. Suspecting that a closer examination of the purse might yield further evidence of drug use, Mr. Choplick proceeded to search the purse thoroughly. The search revealed a small amount of marijuana, a pipe, a number of empty plastic bags, a substantial quantity of money in one- dollar bills, an index card that appeared to be a list of students who owed T. L. O. money, and two letters that implicated T. L. O. in marijuana dealing.

    Mr. Choplick notified T. L. O.'s mother and the police, and turned the evidence of drug dealing over to the police. At the request of the police, T. L. O.'s mother took her daughter to police headquarters, where T. L. O. confessed that she had been selling marijuana at the high school]. On the basis of the confession and the evidence seized by Mr. Choplick, the State brought delinquency charges against T. L. O. in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court of Middlesex County. Contending that Mr. Choplick's search of her purse violated the Fourth Amendment, T. L. O. moved to suppress the evidence found in her purse as well as her confession, which, she argued, was tainted by the allegedly unlawful search.

    Issue : Can schools search students possesions.

    Decision: The U S Supreme Court stated that searches and seizures may be conducted by school officials based upon "reasonable suspicion."

      "a school official may properly conduct a search of a student's person if the official has a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is in the process of being committed, or reasonable cause to believe that the search is necessary to maintain school discipline or enforce school policies." Id., at 341, 428 A. 2d, at 1333 (emphasis in original).

    The Court reasoned that the school was acting for the state in loco parentis in carrying out searches and other disciplinary functions and are therefore not subject to the constraints of the Fourth Amendment. By requiring a school official or teacher to obtain a warrant before searching a child suspected of an infraction of school rules would unduly interfere with the maintenance of the swift and informal disciplinary procedures in the schools. The Court emphasized the importance of balancing the legitimate expectation of privacy and the school's equally legitimate need to maintain an environment in which learning can take place.

    Applying this standard, the court concluded that the search conducted by Mr. Choplick was a reasonable one. The initial decision to open the purse was justified by Mr. Choplick's well-founded suspicion that T.L.O had violated the rule forbidding smoking in the lavatory. Once the purse was open, evidence of marijuana violations was in plain view, and Mr. Choplick was entitled to conduct a thorough search to determine the nature and extent of T.L.O's drug-related activities. Having denied the motion to suppress, the Court on March 23, 1981, found T.L.O. to be a delinquent and on January 8, 1982, sentenced her to a year's probation.

    Significance: The special needs of the school environment require assessment of the legality of such searches against a standard less exacting than that of probable cause and therefore schools do not need not need to meet the criteria of "probable cause", the standard required by the Fourth Amendment.

    Footnote: T. L. O. also received a 3-day suspension from school for smoking cigarettes in a nonsmoking area and a 7-day suspension for possession of marijuana. On T. L. O.'s motion, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, set aside the 7-day suspension on the ground that it was based on evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment. (T. L. O.) v. Piscataway Bd. of Ed., No. C.2865-79 (Super. Ct. N. J., Ch. Div., Mar. 31, 1980). The Board of Education apparently did not appeal the decision of the Chancery Division.


Corkill, Phillip. The Law and American Education. Tucson, Arizona. 1991 (Lecture presented at the Flowing Wells School District Administrative Office).

Important Landmark Cases in Educational Law

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