New Jersey v. T.L.O.
469 U.S. 325 (1985)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985)

New Jersey v. T.L.O.

No. 83-712

Argued March 28, 1984

Reargued October 2, 1984

Decided January 15, 1985

469 U.S. 325

Syllabus

A teacher at a New Jersey high school, upon discovering respondent, then a 14-year-old freshman, and her companion smoking cigarettes in a school lavatory in violation of a school rule, took them to the Principal's office, where they met with the Assistant Vice Principal. When respondent, in response to the Assistant Vice Principal's questioning, denied that she had been smoking and claimed that she did not smoke at all, the Assistant Vice Principal demanded to see her purse. Upon opening the purse, he found a pack of cigarettes and also noticed a package of cigarette rolling papers that are commonly associated with the use of marihuana. He then proceeded to search the purse thoroughly and found some marihuana, a pipe, plastic bags, a fairly substantial amount of money, an index card containing a list of students who owed respondent money, and two letters that implicated her in marihuana dealing. Thereafter, the State brought delinquency charges against respondent in the Juvenile Court, which, after denying respondent's motion to suppress the evidence found in her purse, held that the Fourth Amendment applied to searches by school officials, but that the search in question was a reasonable one, and adjudged respondent to be a delinquent. The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court affirmed the trial court's finding that there had been no Fourth Amendment violation, but vacated the adjudication of delinquency and remanded on other grounds. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed and ordered the suppression of the evidence found in respondent's purse, holding that the search of the purse was unreasonable.

Held:

1. The Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures applies to searches conducted by public school officials, and is not limited to searches carried out by law enforcement officers. Nor are school officials exempt from the Amendment's dictates by virtue of the special nature of their authority over schoolchildren. In carrying out searches and other functions pursuant to disciplinary policies mandated by state statutes, school officials act as representatives of the State, not merely as surrogates for the parents of students, and they cannot claim the parents immunity from the Fourth Amendment's strictures. Pp. 469 U. S. 333-337.

Page 469 U. S. 326

2. Schoolchildren have legitimate expectations of privacy. They may find it necessary to carry with them a variety of legitimate, noncontraband items, and there is no reason to conclude that they have necessarily waived all rights to privacy in such items by bringing them onto school grounds. But striking the balance between schoolchildren's legitimate expectations of privacy and the school's equally legitimate need to maintain an environment in which learning can take place requires some easing of the restrictions to which searches by public authorities are ordinarily subject. Thus, school officials need not obtain a warrant before searching a student who is under their authority. Moreover, school officials need not be held subject to the requirement that searches be based on probable cause to believe that the subject of the search has violated or is violating the law. Rather, the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search. Determining the reasonableness of any search involves a determination of whether the search was justified at its inception and whether, as conducted, it was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first place. Under ordinary circumstances, the search of a student by a school official will be justified at its inception where 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. And such a search will be permissible in its scope when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search, and not excessively intrusive in light of the student's age and sex and the nature of the infraction. Pp. 469 U. S. 337-343.

3. Under the above standard, the search in this case was not unreasonable for Fourth Amendment purposes. First, the initial search for cigarettes was reasonable. The report to the Assistant Vice Principal that respondent had been smoking warranted a reasonable suspicion that she had cigarettes in her purse, and thus the search was justified despite the fact that the cigarettes, if found, would constitute "mere evidence" of a violation of the no-smoking rule. Second, the discovery of the rolling papers then gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that respondent was carrying marihuana as well as cigarettes in her purse, and this suspicion justified the further exploration that turned up more evidence of drug-related activities. Pp. 469 U. S. 343-347.

94 N.J. 331, 463 A.2d 934, reversed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, and in Part 469 U. S. MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which O'CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. 469 U. S. 348.

Page 469 U. S. 327

BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 469 U. S. 351. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 469 U. S. 353. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, and in Part I of which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 469 U. S. 370.

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Primary Holding

Although the Fourth Amendment applies to searches in public schools, the more lenient standard of reasonable suspicion replaces the ordinary standard of probable cause.