Petitioner: State of New Jersey
Petitioner's Claim: That the assistant vice principal did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he searched T.L.O.'s purse after she had been caught smoking in the restroom.
Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Allan J. Nodes, Deputy Attorney General of New Jersey
Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Lois De Julio
Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, Warren E. Burger, Sandra Day O'Connor, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, Byron R. White
Justices Dissenting: William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens
Date of Decision: January 15, 1985
Decision: The Supreme Court approved the principal's search and affirmed the decision that T.L.O. was a juvenile delinquent.
Significance: With T.L.O., the Supreme Court said public school officials can search students' private belongings without a warrant or probable cause. To conduct a search, public schools need only a reasonable suspicion that a student has violated the law or a school rule.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects privacy. It requires the police to get a warrant to search a person, house, or other private place for evidence of a crime. To get a warrant, police must have probable cause, which means good reason to believe the place to be searched has evidence of a crime. In New Jersey v. T.L.O., the Supreme Court had to decide whether public schools needed a warrant and probable cause to search a student's purse.
Smoking in the Girl's Room
On March 7, 1980, a teacher at Piscataway High School in Middlesex County, New Jersey, found two girls smoking in a restroom. One of the girls was T.L.O. (The courts used the girl's initials to protect her privacy.) Smoking in the restroom was against school rules, so the teacher took the girls to the principal's office.
There the girls spoke to Assistant Vice Principal Theodore Choplick. T.L.O.'s friend admitted that she had been smoking in the restroom, but T.L.O. denied it. In fact, T.L.O. said she never smoked. Choplick did not believe this, so he took T.L.O. into his private office. There he demanded to see T.L.O.'s purse. When she gave it to him, Choplick opened it and found a pack a cigarettes inside. Choplick pulled the cigarettes out and accused T.L.O. of lying.
When Choplick looked back into the purse, he saw a package of cigarette rolling papers. In Choplick's experience, students with rolling papers often used marijuana, an illegal drug. Without getting permission, Choplick searched the rest of T.L.O.'s purse. Inside he found a small amount of marijuana, empty plastic bags, a lot of one dollar bills, an index card with a list of students who owed T.L.O. money, and two letters that suggested T.L.O. was selling marijuana.
Choplick notified T.L.O.'s mother of what he found and gave the evidence to the police. T.L.O.'s mother took her to the police station, where T.L.O. confessed that she had been selling marijuana. Using the confession and the evidence from T.L.O.'s purse, the state of New Jersey filed a delinquency lawsuit against T.L.O. in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
T.L.O.'s lawyer tried to get the evidence against her thrown out of court. The Fourth Amendment requires a warrant and probable cause for most searches. States, including public schools, must obey the Fourth Amendment under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. T.L.O.'s lawyer argued that Choplick violated the Fourth Amendment by searching T.L.O.'s purse without a warrant or any reason to believe she had marijuana.
The trial court ruled against T.L.O., found her delinquent, and put her on probation for one year. (Probation allows the court to supervise someone who has broken the law.) T.L.O. appealed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey. That court reversed the judgment against her because it thought Choplick violated her rights by searching her purse. As its last resort, New Jersey took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Students Get Less Privacy Than Adults
With a 6 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of New Jersey. Writing for the Court, Justice Byron R. White said the first question was whether public schools must obey the Fourth Amendment. White said they must. The United States adopted the Fourth Amendment to protect Americans from invasion of privacy by the government, not just by the police. Public schools are part of the government.
The next question was whether Choplick violated the Fourth Amendment by searching T.L.O.'s purse without a warrant. The answer depended on balancing T.L.O.'s interest in privacy against the school's interest in maintaining discipline. T.L.O. obviously had an interest in keeping her purse private. Students often carry love letters, money, diaries, and items for grooming and personal hygiene in their purses. Unlike prisoners, who cannot expect much privacy in jail, students do not shed their right to privacy at the schoolhouse gate.
Schools, however, need to maintain discipline for the sake of education. Justice White noted that schools face increasing problems with drugs, guns, and violence. School officials must react quickly to those problems to protect other students and to prevent interference with education. Forcing a school official to get a warrant with probable cause to conduct a search would frustrate quick discipline.
Balancing these interests, the Court decided schools do not need a warrant or probable cause to conduct a search. As Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., said in a concurring opinion, "It is simply unrealistic to think that students have the same subjective expectation of privacy as the population generally." Schools cannot, however, search anyone, anywhere, anytime for any reason. To conduct a search, schools must have a reasonable suspicion that a student has broken the law or a school rule.
Under this test, Choplick did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he searched T.L.O.'s purse. A teacher saw T.L.O. smoking in the restroom. When T.L.O. denied it, Choplick had good reason to suspect she was lying and that her purse would have evidence of the lie. When Choplick opened T.L.O.'s purse and found rolling papers, he had good reason to believe T.L.O. was either smoking or selling marijuana. Searching her purse to find more evidence was reasonable.
Smokescreen in the Courtroom
Three justices dissented, which means they disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., said school officials, just like the police, should need probable cause to search a student's private belongings. Brennan said, "The Fourth Amendment rests on the principle that a true balance between the individual and society depends on the recognition of 'the right to be let alone-the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.'"
In his own dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said it was wrong to give students less Fourth Amendment protection than adults. "If the Nation's students can be convicted through the use of arbitrary [random] methods destructive of personal liberty, they cannot help but feel that they have been dealt with unfairly."
Suggestions for further reading
Berry, Joy. Every Kid's Guide to the Juvenile Justice System. Chicago: Children's Press, 1987.
Franklin, Paula A. The Fourth Amendment. Englewood Cliffs: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.
Greenberg, Keith Elliot, and Jeanne Vestal. Adolescent Rights: Are Young People Equal under the Law? Twenty First Century Books, 1995.
Hyde, Margaret O. Juvenile Justice and Injustice. New York: Franklin Watts, 1977.
Kowalski, Kathiann M. Teen Rights: At Home, at School, Online. Enslow Publishers Inc., 2000.
Landau, Elaine. Your Legal Rights: From Custody Battles to School Searches, the Headline-Making Cases That Affect Your Life. Walker & Co., 1995.
Marx, Trish, and Sandra Joseph Nunez. And Justice for All: The Legal Rights of Young People. Millbrook Press, 1997.
Mikula, Mark, and L. Mpho Mabunda, eds. Great American Court Cases. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1999.
Olney, Ross R., and Patricia J. Olney. Up against the Law: Your Legal Rights as a Minor. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1985.
Persico, Deborah A. Mapp v. Ohio: Evidence and Search Warrants. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997.
. New Jersey v. T.L.O: Drug Searches in Schools. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.
Riekes, Linda, Steve Jenkins, and Armentha Russell. Juvenile Responsibility and Law. St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1990.
Wetterer, Charles M. The Fourth Amendment: Search and Seizure. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.
Did this raise a question for you?