New Jersey v. T.L.O.

New Jersey v. T.L.O. Case Brief

United States Supreme Court
469 U.S. 325 (1985)

ISSUE: Was it unreasonable for a school's vice principal to search the contents of a student's purse twice because he reasonably believed that she was smoking in the lavatory against school rules?
HOLDING: No.
FACTS:
  • A teacher found 2 girls smoking in the lavatory, so he took them to the principal's office
  • Choplick, the Asst. Vice Principal, didn't believe TLO when she said that she wasn't smoking and that she doesn't even smoke
  • Choplick took TLO to a private office, searched her purse, and found cigarettes and cigarette papers
  • Upon finding the rolling papers, he believed that she possessed marijuana, so he searched further and found a small amount of marijuana, a pipe, empty plastic bags, and substantial money
PROCEDURAL HISTORY:
  • Trial Ct. refused to suppress evidence of marijuana use
  • Ct. App. affirmed and NJ Sup. Ct. reversed
REASONING:
  • 4th Amdt. extends to schools: In carrying out searches and other disciplinary functions pursuant to school policies, school officials act as representatives of the state and thus cannot claim parental immunity from the 4th Amdt.
    • No need for warrant however because such a requirement would unduly interfere with the maintenance of the swift and informal disciplinary procedures needed by schools
    • School officials are NOT in loco parentis, however
  • Standard for searching: A search of a student by a school official will be justified at its inception when 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
    • Permissible in scope when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student
  • Reasonable suspicion here: Choplick has a reasonable suspicion that TLO has cigarettes in her purse and so the search was justified
    • Second search for marijuana justified by finding the rolling papers
COMMENTS:
  • Students at school are entitled to the protections of the Fourth Amendment, just not to the level that individuals in other contexts are. As T.L.O. says, school officials are not in loco parentis (in the role of parents, i.e., exempt from the Fourth Amendment), but they do not need to secure warrants to search a student's belongings. Reasonable suspicion to believe that a student has violated either a school rule or the law will justify a search.
  • However, T.L.O. does not immediately authorize making a student disrobe to look for contraband in his or her underwear. Per Safford Unified School Dist. v. Redding, 129 S. Ct. 2633 (2009), the seriousness of the offense has to be danger to allow such a search. T.L.O. is, after all, a "balancing approach" case (see Terry).

 

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