New Jersey v. TLO Case Summary

Can school officials search students or their property whenever they choose? New Jersey v. T.L.O. asked the U.S. Supreme Court to examine the privacy rights of public school students. 

Many of the Supreme Court's most notable cases involve the constitutional rights of students in public schools. In New Jersey v. T.L.O., decided in 1985, the Supreme Court took up the issue of when school officials can search students' personal belongings. Do students have Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by teachers and school staff? Or do students not have a reasonable expectation of privacy while in school?

This question lingers in various forms to this day. For example, what right do schools have to search students' phones? This body of law is still being developed. What was clear after New Jersey v. T.L.O., however, is that a student's Fourth Amendment rights are not left entirely at the door of the school. However, the Court held students have less of an expectation of privacy at school than in other places.

Facts of the Case

The underlying circumstances surrounding New Jersey v. T.L.O. are not particularly unusual. In the early 1980s, a high school teacher discovered two girls smoking in the bathroom. This, of course, was a violation of school rules. Although one 14-year-old student, T.L.O., denied she had been smoking, the teacher didn't buy it and brought them both to the principal's office. A vice principal at the school, suspecting T.L.O. had cigarettes, asked to see T.L.O.'s purse. The vice principal found marijuana papers alongside a pack of cigarettes, which led to a more thorough search of T.L.O.'s purse. He discovered a significant amount of cash, a small amount of marijuana, and a list of students who owed T.L.O money. Since these items indicated the student was selling marijuana to classmates, the school contacted the police. Ultimately, T.L.O. confessed to police and was charged in juvenile court for selling marijuana in school.

T.L.O. argued that the school violated her Fourth Amendment rights when searching her purse. Because the evidence was obtained in violation of her rights, she argued, the list, cash, and papers could not be admitted as evidence, and her confession should be thrown out as well since it came from an unlawful search. The lower state court sided with the school, but the New Jersey Supreme Court sided with T.L.O. in finding that the search was unreasonable.

Before getting into the Supreme Court's decision, it helps to understand certain aspects of search and seizure law. Namely, the exclusionary rule and probable cause.

The Exclusionary Rule

The exclusionary rule developed in the early 20th century. Under this Supreme Court doctrine, evidence found in violation of a person's Fourth Amendment right is not admissible in court. The first case to use this doctrine was the 1914 decision Weeks v. United States.

It's an important doctrine because the outcome of many criminal cases is determined by the exclusionary rule. If a criminal defendant can successfully argue that officers did not have probable cause to conduct a search, then the case against the defendant usually falls apart. If, however, the state can show probable cause, then the evidence is admissible, and the defendant may have a hard time defending their case.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits the government, including law enforcement, from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures on U.S. citizens. Fourth Amendment law can be extremely complex, and exceptions and gray areas exist, but essentially police cannot search a person without probable cause. They also cannot search a place where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy without probable cause or first obtaining a search warrant from a court.

Law enforcement officers have probable cause for a search when they have a reasonable suspicion that a person has committed or is committing a crime. Similarly, law enforcement officers can search private spaces, such as homes, if they obtain a warrant after showing to a judge they reasonably expect to find specific items connected with a crime, or if one of the exceptions such as the "plain sight" doctrine applies.

Again, this is a complicated area of the law, but these are the basics of search and seizure law. In New Jersey v. T.L.O., the court had to decide if:

  • The Fourth Amendment applies to students in a public school
  • The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches by teachers, as well as law enforcement officers
  • Students have a legitimate expectation of privacy in school
  • The vice principal's search of T.L.O.'s purse was unreasonable

The Decision and Reasoning of the Court

The Supreme Court justices all agreed on some parts of the decision, but three (Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens) dissented in part.

The Court unanimously held that students have a Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure while in school. What's more, that prohibition extends to teachers and school staff. According to Justice White, who wrote the majority opinion, ". . . this Court has never limited the Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures to operations conducted by the police." Put simply, no teacher, staff, or police officer can conduct random or unsubstantiated searches of students.

However, the majority decision held that schools did not need the same level of probable cause as police officers for conducting searches. This is because students do not have the same expectation of privacy as citizens have in their homes. Instead, the majority established the following test to determine the reasonableness of a school's search of a student:

  • The search is "justified at its inception" and
  • The search is "reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place"

A school's search of a student is justified at its inception if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting a student has broken the law or school rules. The search is appropriate in scope if it is not "excessively intrusive" considering the student's age and the rule or law the school believes the student has violated. This is similar, but not identical, to the standard the law places on police searches. It is a somewhat lowered standard, replacing "probable cause" with "reasonable suspicion."

Once it had established the standard, the Supreme Court had to apply it to T.L.O.'s case. Did the school violate T.L.O.'s rights when it searched her purse? This is where the justices disagreed. According to the majority, the school's searches met the above standard of reasonableness. Justice Powell, with Justice O'Connor, agreed with the majority opinion. However, they wrote separately to emphasize that students have less of a privacy expectation in school than others.

The Dissenting Opinions

Justice Brennan, with whom Justice Marshall joined, dissented in part. While Justices Brennan and Marshall agreed that students have Fourth Amendment protections, they disagreed with the new standard for searches the majority created. "In adopting this unclear, unprecedented, and unnecessary departure from generally applicable Fourth Amendment standards, the Court carves out a broad exception to standards that this Court has developed over years of considering Fourth Amendment problems," Justice Brennan wrote. Instead, he would have held that the vice principal needed probable cause to search T.L.O.'s purse. In holding the school to the higher and more established probable cause standard, Justices Brennan and Marshall would have upheld the New Jersey Supreme Court's decision finding that the school violated T.L.O.'s Fourth Amendment rights.

Justice Stevens also wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Marshall and in part by Justice Brennan, holding that the Supreme Court should have limited its decision to whether the exclusionary rule applied in this case. When it first appealed the case to the Supreme Court, the state of New Jersey first only asked the Supreme Court to decide whether the exclusionary rule applied to the decision the New Jersey Supreme Court made. The question of T.L.O.'s Fourth Amendment rights came up later and was the reason the Supreme Court heard oral arguments twice in this case. Justice Stevens would have held the exclusionary rule applied to school searches and left it at that. However, he added a section on the majority's decision, writing that students have the same expectation of privacy for their personal belongings that anyone else has. In other words, Justice Stevens also disagreed with the majority's newly created standard for the lawfulness of school searches.

The Impact of New Jersey v. T.L.O.

As a result of the decision, school searches of students are very fact-dependent. Courts apply a somewhat different standard than police searches to determine whether the school was justified in conducting a search. As noted above, this question is particularly relevant today, when students carry around significant amounts of personal information in their pocket in the form of smartphones. As one hypothetical, would a school be justified in searching a student's text messages in similar circumstances as T.L.O.'s? While the question to that hypothetical remains unclear, the standard courts would use to determine that question would derive from the standard set in New Jersey v. T.L.O.

You can read the full opinion here.

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