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New Jersey v. T.L.O.

New Jersey v. T.L.O., 105 S.Ct. 733, 742 (1985).

Facts: A teacher caught two female students smoking in a restroom at a New Jersey high school in violation of a school rule and brought them to the Principal‟s office. When questioned by the Assistant Vice Principal, one of the students alleged that she did not even smoke. The Assistant Vice Principal then demanded this student‟s purse, briefly inspected it, and found a pack of cigarettes. He also found rolling papers; consequently, he proceeded to search the purse more carefully. He found some marijuana, money, a pipe, and other materials suggestive of drug dealing in the second search of the purse. Subsequently, the State brought drug charges against the student. Both the juvenile court and the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court held that the search was reasonable. The Supreme Court of New Jersey, however, held that the search was unreasonable and suppressed the evidence found from it. The United States Supreme Court granted cert to decide the issue.

Issue: Can school officials perform searches of students on school grounds absent probable cause or a warrant?

Held: Yes.

Analysis: The T.L.O. Court held that school officials may perform warrantless searches of students, finding that “the warrant requirement . . . is unsuited to the school environment.” T.L.O., 105 S.Ct. at at 742. Further, the T.L.O. Court determined that “the school setting . . . requires some modification of the level of suspicion of illicit activity needed to justify a search.” Id. As such, the T.L.O. court also held that the search’s legality turns on its reasonableness as a search under all the circumstances. With its rejection of the warrant and probable cause requirements, the T.L.O. Court adopted a reasonableness standard for searches conducted in the school setting. It adopted a balancing test. The T.L.O Court explained that it considers and weighs the “privacy interests of school children against the substantial need of teachers and administrators . . . to maintain order in the schools . . . .” Id. at 742. As to the first prong of this balancing test, the T.L.O. Court noted as follows: 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. Id. at 743. As to the second prong of this balancing test, the T.L.O. Court stated that “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.” Id.


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