3 minute read

New Jersey v. T.L.O.


In New Jersey v. T.L.O., the U.S. Supreme Court set forth the principles governing searches by public school authorities.

In the 1760s, the British government turned its back on the ancient concept of reasonable search and seizure when it authorized writs of assistance, which allowed a British agent to authorize any that home, shop, or place of business be searched. Writs of assistance were issued so agents could search for smuggled goods on which customs duty had not been paid. Agents were issued these writs without any reasonable grounds to believe that a building held smuggled goods. The writs did not state what was being searched for, did not name the persons involved, and were valid for indefinite periods of time. These writs helped spark the flame of the American Revolution and made it so that at the 1787 and 1788 ratifying conventions, the Fourth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment states that people can expect to be protected "in their persons, houses, papers and effects" from "unreasonable searches and seizures." Unfortunately the concept of "unreasonable" is unclear and at the heart of many Supreme Court search and seizure cases. However, four elements need to be established in a search and seizure question: what the meaning of probable cause is; what a search or a seizure is; what circumstances dictate the need for a search warrant; and finally, what legal ramifications of a search or seizure makes them unconstitutional. Many of these questions arose in the case of New Jersey v. T.L.O.

A New Jersey high school teacher entered a restroom to find a 14-year old freshman smoking a cigarette which violated the school's rules. The teacher took the student to the principal's office. An assistant vice principal questioned the student about her behavior. The freshman denied that she was smoking in the restroom and asserted that she did not smoke cigarettes at all.

The assistant vice principal demanded the student's purse and opened it to find an open pack of cigarettes. When the assistant vice principal took the cigarettes out of the purse, there was a pack of rolling papers, such as one might use with marijuana. The assistant vice principal then searched the purse very thoroughly to find such things as a small quantity of marijuana, a marijuana pipe, a quantity of plastic bags, a large amount of $1 bills, a list of students who owed her money and two letters which left no doubt that she was dealing marijuana.

In delinquency proceedings against the student, a New Jersey juvenile court allowed the evidence to be admitted. The juvenile court ruled that a school official had the right to search a student if the official suspects reasonably that the student has committed a crime, is committing a crime, or is about to commit a crime. Furthermore, a school official can search a student if there is a reasonable cause to believe that the search is crucial to maintain school discipline or to enforce school policy. In this case, said the juvenile court, these standards dictated that this was a reasonable search.

The court ruled that the student was a delinquent, sentencing her to a year's probation. The appellate court affirmed the juvenile court's ruling that the student's Fourth Amendment rights had not been violated, but annulled the delinquency ruling. The appellate court returned the case to determine whether the student had waived her Fifth Amendment rights willingly and voluntarily before she confessed.

The student appealed the Fourth Amendment ruling to the Supreme Court of New Jersey which reversed the appellate division's judgment, and ordered that the evidence in the purse be suppressed because the search was not reasonable.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case on certiorari and reversed the ruling of the Supreme Court of New Jersey. Justice White wrote an opinion with which Powell, Rehnquist, O'Connor and Burger agreed. Justices Brennan, Marshall and Stevens joined the opinion, but only partially.

The concurring justices all decided that the Fourth Amendment's unreasonable search and seizure prohibition applies to searches made by public school officials. Further rulings were that school officials did not need to get a warrant before searching a student under their authority and that school officials do not need to follow the search requirement of probable cause to presume that a student is violating, has violated, or will violate the law. Whether a student search is legal depends on the reasonableness of the search in accordance with the circumstances surrounding the search. Finally, this particular search was not unreasonable relative to the Fourth Amendment.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988New Jersey v. T.L.O. - Significance, Do Students Have The Same Right To Protection Against Unreasonable Search?