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New Jersey v. T.L.O (1985)

Case

T.L.O was a fourteen-year-old high schooler in New Jersey. A teacher found T.L.O and her classmate smoking cigarettes in the girl’s bathroom. Since this was in violation of school policy, the two were brought to the school’s administration. While T.L.O’s classmate admitted to smoking, T.L.O denied smoking, which prompted the administrator to search her purse. The school administrator found cigarettes and other materials that are thought to be used for marijuana use. After continuing his search, he found a small amount of marijuana, money, and a list of students who owed her money. These findings led the administrator to believe she might be dealing drugs. T.L.O was charged with possession and confessed to dealing marijuana. T.L.O faced Juvenile Court charges and was put on a year’s probation. 

T.L.O and her defense team claimed that the administrator’s search violated her Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution details that people should be secure in their persons, against unreasonable searches and seizures without probable cause. The Court was asked to answer if the evidence was lawfully obtained under the Fourth Amendment. 

Decision

In a 6-3 decision, the Court wrote that the search was in line with the Fourth Amendment. The Majority decision was written by Justice White, who concluded that the Fourth Amendment applies to school officials, not just law enforcement personnel. The Court found public school teachers and administrators as agents of the state, for which the Fourth Amendment applies. While the Court acknowledged that students should have some privacy at school, they argued the school educational environment must be maintained. So, if a school teacher or administrator suspects a crime, they do not need a warrant or probable cause for a search. Since T.L.O was caught smoking, the administrator had reasonable suspicion to search her purse. The Court decided that the search of T.L.O’s purse was justified at its inception. This decision established minimal privacy for student’s belongings while at school. 

Justice Powell’s concurrence took special concern with the school environment. Since students were in a school setting, Justice Powell suggested they do not have the same constitutional protections had they not been in a school setting. Justice Blackmun’s concurrence focused on the immediate nature of threats at schools. Since they needed to protect the educational environment, Blackmun argued that there was an exception to the requirement of a warrant and probable cause. 

Dissent

Justice Brennan’s partial dissent was joined by Justice Marshall. In his dissent, Brennan wrote that he agreed that school officials may search students without a warrant. However, he disagreed with the idea of using reasonable suspicion instead of probable cause in order to determine if a search is warranted. Brennan wrote that the school administrators did not have probable cause to search TLO’s belongings and therefore the evidence should not be taken into account. 

Justice Stevens also concurred in part and dissented in part. He wrote that the search of T.L.O’s purse was, first and foremost, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Stevens wrote that the administrators did not have a real reason to believe T.L.O had illegal possessions on her. Therefore, he stated that she should not have been searched in the first place and the search was unconstitutional. 

Impact

The advancements of technology have complicated the decision of New Jersey v. T.L.O (1985). Cell phones and electronic cigarettes were not yet the phenomenon they are today. Cell phones are often searched by school officials for content. Schools claim these measures are to maintain the educational environment. In addition, many students today suspected of vaping are searched for electronic cigarettes, which they could face disciplinary action for possessing. However, recent claims have argued for a strengthening of student’s Fourth Amendment rights. These protections would contrast the standard set in T.L.O. 

Think Further

  1.  What do you think the difference is between “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion”? 
  2. If the Court were to rule on the constitutionality of searching cell phones, how do you think they would rule today? Would this ruling be in line with the decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O?
  3. How has your school handled the vaping epidemic in America? Are your school policies in line with the decision in T.L.O?

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  1. “New Jersey v. T.L.O.” Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/1983/83-712.
  2. “Facts and Case Summary – New Jersey v. T.L.O” United States Courts, https://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-new-jersey-v-tlo
  3. Spung, A. James. “From Backpacks to BlackBerries: (Re)Examining New Jersey v. T.L.O in the Age of the Cell Phone” Emory Law Journal Vol. 61:1112011. https://law.emory.edu/elj/_documents/volumes/61/1/comments/spung.pdf