Missouri Bar Citizenship Education

New Jersey v. T.L.O.

Facts of the Case

On March 7, 1980, a teacher at Piscataway High School in New Jersey found two girls smoking in a restroom. Since this was a violation of school rules, the teacher took the two students to the principal's office. The assistant vice-principal questioned the two girls separately. One student admitted that she had been smoking. However, T.L.O. denied that she had been smoking in the restroom and claimed she did not smoke at all. The assistant vice-principal then asked to see T.L.O.'s purse. When he opened the purse he found a pack of cigarettes and also noticed a package of rolling papers which the vice-principal knew were associated with marijuana use. He then searched the purse more thoroughly and found a small quantity of marijuana, a pipe, several empty plastic bags, a substantial amount of money, a card that appeared to be a list of students who owed T.L.O. money, and two letters that implicated T.L.O. in the distribution and sale of marijuana, a crime under New Jersey law.

What Happened in State Court

The State of New Jersey brought delinquency charges against T.L.O. in Juvenile Court. T.L.O. argued that the vice-principal violated her Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials because the vice-principal had no reason to believe a crime had been committed and had no search warrant. The Juvenile Court agreed that a vice-principal was a government official and that Fourth Amendment protections applied to searches by school officials, but found that the vice-principal's search of her purse was reasonable. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Juvenile Court and found that once the vice-principal had found the cigarettes in T.L.O.'s purse, the search should have ended and there should have been no further exploration of the purse.

  • Appellant’s (State of New Jersey) argument: The vice-principal's search of the purse was reasonable because a teacher had told the vice-principal that T.L.O. had been smoking. Thus, the vice-principal had reasonable cause to suspect a school rule had been broken. When the vice-principal was searching for the cigarettes, the drug-related evidence was in plain view. Plain view is an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment.
  • Respondent’s (T.L.O.) argument: The vice-principal had no probable cause to believe that T.L.O. had committed a crime when he searched her purse. Possession of and use of cigarettes (at that time) were not crimes. Belief that a school rule has been broken is not grounds for a warrantless search. Furthermore, even if the vice-principal had the right to search T.L.O.'s purse for cigarettes that the search should have ended when the cigarettes were found.

Food for thought: If the Court should find that the vice-principal's search of T.L.O.'s purse was reasonable, does this open the door to school administrators randomly searching students' lockers, desks and belongings?