On March 7, 1980, a teacher at Piscataway High School in New Jersey happened upon two girls smoking tobacco cigarettes in a school restroom. One of the girls was 14-year-old T.L.O. (a pseudonym). The teacher brought both girls to the assistant vice principal, Theodore Choplick, who interrogated them about the smoking incident. While the other girl admitted to smoking in the bathroom, T.L.O. asserted that she had not.
Suspicious that T.L.O. was lying, Choplick proceeded to open T.L.O.’s purse, which contained a pack of cigarettes. Upon removing the pack of cigarettes, he noticed cigarette-rolling papers, which caused him to believe that the purse might contain marijuana. Choplick then removed all of the purse’s contents to reveal a small amount of marijuana, a pipe, several empty plastic bags, an index card listing the names of students who owed T.L.O. money, two letters from students indicating that T.L.O. was supplying marijuana to other students, and a large sum of money in single-dollar denominations. Mr. Choplick then phoned T.L.O.’s mother and turned over all of the contents in the purse to the police. In a confession to police, T.L.O. admitted that she had been dealing marijuana at her high school.
The Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court of Middlesex County, New Jersey, filed delinquency charges against T.L.O. based on the evidence in her purse and her admission of drug dealing at school. T.L.O. moved to suppress the evidence found in her purse, charging that Choplick violated her Fourth Amendment rights by conducting an allegedly unlawful search. As part of the Bill of Rights, the Fourth Amendment protects U.S. citizens against unreasonable search and seizure. It requires judicially approved search warrants to be issued based on probable cause, or the reasonable belief that a person has committed a particular crime. The juvenile court denied T.L.O.’s motion to suppress the evidence, maintaining that a school official does not need a judicial warrant and may search a student if there is “reasonable suspicion” of a crime or “reasonable cause” to believe that the ability to search is necessary to maintain and enforce school discipline policies. On March 23, 1981, the court found T.L.O. to be delinquent and on January 8, 1982, sentenced her to one year’s probation. T.L.O. then appealed her conviction. The Appellate Division found no Fourth Amendment violation.
T.L.O. persisted and appealed the Appellate Division’s ruling to the Supreme Court of New Jersey. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the lower court that warrantless searches by school officials do not violate the Fourth Amendment as long as the official “has reasonable grounds to believe that a student possesses evidence of illegal activity or activity that would interfere with school discipline and order.” However, the majority opinion of the New Jersey Supreme Court held that Choplick did not have “reasonable grounds.” Possession of cigarettes did not violate school rules and, therefore, did not necessitate emptying out T.L.O.’s purse. Additionally, the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by state officials, which includes teachers and administrators. Based on this line of reasoning, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the appellate division’s ruling and ordered the evidence in T.L.O.’s purse suppressed. The state of New Jersey appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States in New Jersey v. T.L.O. (No. 83-712, 469 U.S. 325; argued: March 28, 1984; decided: January 15, 1985).
Justice Byron White delivered the Court opinion. In a 6-3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the searches by school officials are constitutional without a warrant as long as they are reasonable. The court argued that while schoolchildren should have legitimate expectations of privacy, the school has an equally legitimate responsibility to maintain a positive and safe learning environment. School officials do not need judicial warrants. Instead, school officials are held to the standard of “reasonableness.” A school official has the right to search if he or she has “reasonable grounds to believe that a student possesses evidence of illegal activity or activity that would interfere with school discipline and order.” According to the Supreme Court, Choplick had reasonable grounds to believe that T.L.O. was engaged in illegal activity.
- Alexander, S. M. (2004). Too much protection and, at the same time, not enough: Inconsistent treatment of adolescents by the Supreme Court. DePaul University Law Review, 53(3), 1739-1774.
- Handler, J.G. (1994). Ballentine’s law dictionary: Legal assistant edition. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers.
- Mansukhani, S. H. (1995). School searches after New Jersey v. T.L.O.: Are there any limits? Journal of Family Law, 34(3), 345-385.
- New Jersey v. T.L.O. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0469_0325_ZS.html
- Pinard, M. (2003). From the classroom to the courtroom: Reassessing Fourth Amendment standards in public school searches involving law enforcement authorities. Arizona Law Review, 45(1), 1067-1128.
- Zane, D. E. (1986). School searches under the Fourth Amendment: New Jersey v. T.L.O. Cornell Law Review, 72, 368-390.