The Right to Search Students

New Jersey V. T.L.O., 1985


In New Jersey a young women (14 Years old) a freshman was caught smoking in the schools restroom, since smoking was against the school rules the young women who later was referred to as T.L.O. was taken to the assistant vice-principles office.

When questioned by the assistant vice-principle about the situation T.L.O. denied smoking. The assistant vice-principle began to search her purse. There he found a pack od cigarettes along with rolling papers commonly used for smoking marijuana. He then searched the rest of her purse and found marijuana, a pipe, a plastic bags, and a large amount of money along with an index card that listed names of who owed T.L.O. money and two letters that implicated T.L.O. in marijuana dealing.

The assistant vice-principle then notified the girls parents and turned the evidence of drug dealing over to the police T.L.O. was charged, as a juvenile, with criminal activity T.L.O, in turn, claimed the evidence that was found inside her purse could not be used in court because the evidence was obtained through an illegal search and seizure. They mentioned that the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant and probable cause applied to T.L.O. while in high school as a student. After appeals in lower courts, the case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court.

What was the issue?

This case brought up the issue of a search warrent in schools and whether it was constitutional or not to search a student without a warrent.

The Supreme Court's Decision

Justice Bryan R. White wrote the court's 6-3 decision, which ruled against T.L.O. The Court concluded that the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures applies to searches conducted by school officials do not have to meet the same standards as police officers when conducting searches. Justice White wrote that students have a real need to bring personal property into school and have "legitimate expectations of privacy" while in school. At the same time, however, "against the child's interest in privacy must be set the substantial interest of teacher and administrators in maintaining discipline in the classroom and on school grounds." The Court devised a plan to ease for school officials the Fourth Amendment requirements for a lawful search. Because of the significance of the school's interests, the Court ruled that school officials do not need to obtain a search warrant before searching a student who is under their supervision. "The warrant requirement," the Court held,"is unsuited to the school environment and would unduly interfere with the maintenance of the swift and informal disciplinary procedures needed in the schools."Next, the Court ruled that officials do not have to be held to the same standards that applies to the police when conducting searches. In earlier cases the Court had ruled that "probable cause" meant that the police must have solid information that there is a real chance the person being searched has violated or is violating the law. Declining to apply this standard to public school officials, the Court said that school officials may search a student as long as " there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school". Thus the court replaced the "probable clause" requirement with a reasonableness requirement.

Works Cited

Supreme Court Case Study 63

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