New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985)

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Historical Background

The Supreme Court has a long history of upholding citizens' protections against unreasonable searches and seizures-a right guaranteed by the 4th Amendment. In Weeks v. United States, 1914, the Court ruled that evidence obtained by police illegally is not admissible in federal court-a practice known as the exclusionary rule. The Court decided that such evidence is also inadmissible in State courts in Mapp v. Ohio, 1961. The Supreme Court extended 4th Amendment protections to include not only tangible property, but also intangible items obtained without a warrant, such as phone conversations (Katz v. United States, 1967). However, the 4th Amendment does not apply to such items as garbage placed on a curb (California v. Greenwood, 1988).

But does the 4th Amendment clause apply to students? In 1985, a New Jersey high school student was arrested as a result of a search and seizure conducted by her assistant vice-principal. The constitutionality of the search was questioned and ultimately the Supreme Court faced the task of establishing parameters for searches and seizures in schools.

Circumstances of the Case

In 1980, a teacher at Piscataway High School in Middlesex County, New Jersey, found T.L.O. and another girl smoking in a restroom-a place that was by school rule a nonsmoking area. The two girls were taken to the principal's office where T.L.O.'s companion admitted that she had been smoking in the restroom. T.L.O. denied smoking there. She denied that she smoked at all. An assistant vice-principal demanded to see T.L.O.'s purse. Searching through it he found a pack of cigarettes. He also found rolling papers, a pipe, marijuana, a large wad of dollar bills, and two letters that indicated that T.L.O. was involved in marijuana dealing at the high school.

T.L.O. was taken to the police station where she confessed that she had sold marijuana at the school. A juvenile court sentenced her to a year's probation. The State Supreme Court overturned the decision, stating that T.L.O.'s 4th Amendment rights had been violated. The State of New Jersey asked that the Supreme Court hear its appeal.

Constitutional Issues

Do students in school have the same rights under the 4th Amendment as adults? Does “probable cause“ have to be established for the search of a student in school, or is “reasonable cause“ enough?


For New Jersey: School officials act for the parents of students. Like parents, they do not need a warrant to make searches or seize evidence. School officials also must have broad powers to control student conduct, including the powers of search and seizure. T.L.O.'s behavior furnished a reasonable basis for the search of her purse; therefore, the exclusionary rule does not apply.

For T.L.O: Public school officials are employees of the State, not representatives of parents. They do not have the right to act as parents. Because school officials are employees of the State, they are obligated to respect every student's rights, including his or her right to privacy. The search of T.L.O.'s purse and the seizure of its contents were unreasonable acts, which led to her confession; therefore, the exclusionary rule applies.

Decision and Rationale

The Court ruled by a margin of 6-3 in favor of New Jersey. Justice Byron White wrote the Court's opinion. White recognized that students in public schools have a constitutional right to privacy under the 4th Amendment and that school officials are bound by constitutional restrictions. But the opinion also stated that the rights of children and adolescents are not the same as those of adults and that school officials have a responsibility to maintain the discipline necessary for education. “The school setting,“ White wrote, “â¦requires some modification of the level of suspicion of illicit activity needed to justify a search.“ The rights of students must be balanced against the needs of the school setting.

Usually, White noted, “probable cause“ that a legal violation has occurred must exist. But White agreed with a lower court finding that a “school official may properly conduct a search of a student's person if the official has a reasonable suspicion that a crime has beenâ¦committed, or reasonable cause to believe that the search is necessary to maintain school disciplineâ¦.“ In other words, in a school, a search could be reasonable under the 4th Amendment without probable cause, so long as it was supported by reasonable suspicion or reasonable cause. The assistant vice-principal's search was considered reasonable under this definition.

In his partial dissent, Justice William Brennan wrote that the “decision sanctions school officials to conduct full scale searches on a 'reasonableness' standard whose only definite content is that it is not the same test as the 'probable cause' standard found in the text of the Fourth Amendment.“ In other words, he was concerned that the unclear distinction between “probable“ and “reasonable“ cause would discourage teachers from carrying out permissible searches.

The Court's decision would serve as a precedent in cases to come. In Bethel School District v. Fraser, 1986, the Court upheld school disciplinary action taken against a student who delivered a sexually explicit speech nominating a fellow student for elective office. Although the case dealt with 1st Amendment protections rather than those of the 4th Amendment, the Court based the decision on the following: “In New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985)⦠we reaffirmed that the constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings.“

In the 1990s, the T.L.O. decision was used a number of times in Supreme Court cases to allow the use of metal detectors and protective searches in school. The Court has likened such searches to airport scanning and highway checkpoints for drunk drivers.

Source: ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Pearson Prentice Hall. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Information Please®, ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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