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New Jersey v. TLO

    Brief Fact Summary. The vice-principal of a school searched a students bag and found evidence that she was dealing marijuana.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. “[S]chool officials need not obtain a warrant before searching a student who is under their authority.”

    Facts. The principle of a high school discovered two girls smoking in a laboratory. One of the girls admitted she was smoking, which violated a school rule. The second girl claimed she was not smoking and as such did not break the rule. The assistant vice-principal took the student into his private office and demanded to search her purse. While looking for cigarettes, the vice-principal found a package of cigarette rolling papers. He continued searching the purse and found a small amount of marijuana and a pipe, a number of empty plastic bags and a substantial amount of one dollar bills and an index card with the names of various people who owed the student money.

    The state brought delinquency proceedings against the student and the student argued that her Fourth Amendment Rights were violated . The juvenile court denied the motion to suppress and the student was found to be delinquent. The Appellant Division affirmed the trial court’s finding there was no Fourth Amendment violation. The Supreme Court of New Jersey overruled the Appellate Division.

    Issue. What is the appropriate “standard for assessing the legality of searches conducted by public school officials and the application of that standard to the facts of this case[?]”

    Held. The search did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The majority observed, “we are faced initially with the question whether that Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures applies to searches conducted by public school officials.” The majority observed “[i]t is now beyond dispute that “the Federal Constitution, by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by state officers.’ ” Equally indisputable is the proposition that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the rights of students against encroachment by public school officials.”

    “Today’s public school officials do not merely exercise authority voluntarily conferred on them by individual parents; rather, they act in furtherance of publicly mandated educational and disciplinary policies. In carrying out searches and other disciplinary functions pursuant to such policies, school officials act as representatives of the State, not merely as surrogates for the parents, and they cannot claim the parents’ immunity from the strictures of the Fourth Amendment.”

    The majority then asked, “[h]ow, then, should we strike the balance between the schoolchild’s legitimate expectations of privacy and the school’s equally legitimate need to maintain an environment in which learning can take place? It is evident that the school setting requires some easing of the restrictions to which searches by public authorities are ordinarily subject. The warrant requirement, in particular, is unsuited to the school environment: requiring a teacher to obtain a warrant before searching a child suspected of an infraction of school rules (or of the criminal law) would unduly interfere with the maintenance of the swift and informal disciplinary procedures needed in the schools. Just as we have in other cases dispensed with the warrant requirement when ‘the burden of obtaining a warrant is likely to frustrate the governmental purpose behind the search, we hold today that school officials need not obtain a warrant before searching a student who is under their authority.’

    “We join the majority of courts that have examined this issue in concluding that the accommodation of the privacy interests of schoolchildren with the substantial need of teachers and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools does not require strict adherence 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 twofold inquiry: first, one must consider ‘whether the . . . action was justified at its inception,’ second, one must determine whether the search as actually conducted ‘was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.’ Under ordinary circumstances, a search of a student by a teacher or other 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. 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 age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.”

    “This standard will, we trust, neither unduly burden the efforts of school authorities to maintain order in their schools nor authorize unrestrained intrusions upon the privacy of schoolchildren. By focusing attention on the question of reasonableness, the standard will spare teachers and school administrators the necessity of schooling themselves in the niceties of probable cause and permit them to regulate their conduct according to the dictates of reason and common sense. At the same time, the reasonableness standard should ensure that the interests of students will be invaded no more than is necessary to achieve the legitimate end of preserving order in the schools.”

    “Because the search resulting in the discovery of the evidence of marijuana dealing by [the second student] was reasonable, the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision to exclude that evidence from [the student’s] juvenile delinquency proceedings on Fourth Amendment grounds was erroneous. Accordingly, the judgment of the Supreme Court of New Jersey is erroneous.”

    Dissent. Justice Brennan and Justice Marshall concurred in part and dissented in part. The justices observed we “fully agree with Part II of the Court’s opinion. Teachers, like all other government officials, must conform their conduct to the Fourth Amendment’s protections of personal privacy and personal security. As Justice Stevens points out, this principle is of particular importance when applied to schoolteachers, for children learn as much by example as by exposition. It would be incongruous and futile to charge teachers with the task of imbuing their students with an understanding of our system of constitutional democracy, while at the same time immunizing those same teachers from the need to respect constitutional protections” “[The dissenting judges] do not, however, otherwise join the Court’s opinion. Today’s 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 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. Its decision is supported neither by precedent nor even by a fair application of the ‘balancing test’ it proclaims in this very opinion. ”

    Discussion. This case illustrates another instance where the warrant requirement does not apply due to the uniqueness of the situation involved.


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