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Facts and Case Summary - New Jersey v. T.L.O.

Facts and case summary for New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985).

Facts

T.L.O. was a 14-year-old female student at a New Jersey high school. A teacher found T.L.O. and another student smoking cigarettes in the girls’ restroom in the school building in violation of school rules. The teacher brought the two students to a school administrator, who questioned each of them. The second student admitted to smoking cigarettes. T.L.O. denied the allegations.  The administrator then accused T.LO. of lying to him, and demanded to see her purse in an attempt to find the cigarettes. Among other things, when the administrator opened her purse, he found a pack of cigarettes, and cigarette rolling paper. Due to the fact that the administrator knew that cigarette rolling paper is used to smoke marijuana he now suspected T.L.O. of marijuana use. He further searched T.L.O.’s purse, and found a small plastic bag containing a grass-like substance and  items that could be drug paraphernalia, including a pipe, a wad of money, a piece of paper with the names of students who apparently owed T.L.O. money, and a letter that appeared to implicate T.L.O. in dealing marijuana. The administrator contacted the police who, in turn, contacted T.L.O.’s mother. Her mother brought T.L.O. to the police station, where she confessed to selling marijuana.

Due to her age, T.L.O. faced delinquency charges in Juvenile Court.  The Juvenile Court denied T.L.O.’s motion to suppress (keep out) her confession and the evidence from the search. Her lawyer argued that the search of her purse was a violation of the Fourth Amendment. T.L.O. was found delinquent, and was put on probation for one year. After a lengthy appeal process in the New Jersey state court system, the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear the case. 

The Fourth Amendment Provides:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Procedure

Lower Court 1:  Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court of Middlesex County, N.J.

Lower Court 1 Ruling: The Fourth Amendment applies to searches carried out by school officials, but a school official may conduct a search of a student’s person under certain circumstances. Specifically, the Juvenile Court held that a school official may search a student if the official has reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is in the process of being committed, or has reasonable cause to believe the search is necessary to maintain school discipline or enforce polices.  Applying this standard to the facts of this case, the Court held that the Fourth Amendment was not violated by the school administrator’s search.  T.L.O. was found delinquent and sentenced to probation for one year.

Lower Court 2:  Appellate Division (New Jersey State Court System)

Lower Court 2 Ruling:  Affirmed the Juvenile Court’s decision that there was no Fourth Amendment violation, but vacated the delinquency adjudication and remanded (sent back) the case to the Juvenile Court decide if T.L.O. had knowingly and voluntarily waived her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination before confessing.

Lower Court 3:  New Jersey State Supreme Court

Lower Court 3 Ruling:  Agreed with the lower courts that the Fourth Amendment is applicable to the conduct of school officials; also agreed that school officials may conduct a warrantless search of a student when they have reasonable grounds to believe that a student possesses evidence of illegal activity or activity that interferes with school discipline and order. However, New Jersey’s highest court ultimately reversed, holding, in T.L.O.’s case, the school administrator’s conduct was not reasonable because the mere possession of cigarettes did not violate school rules. The administrator’s desire to catch T.L.O. in a lie did not justify rummaging through her purse.

Issue Before the Supreme Court of the United States

Whether evidence unlawfully seized by a school official – without involvement of law enforcement officials – should be allowed in as evidence at juvenile delinquency proceedings.

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling

The Court did not reach this issue.  As explained in the reasoning section below, the Court concluded that, under the circumstances of this case, the search of T.L.O.’s purse did not violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Court did not address the issue of whether unlawfully seized evidence should be suppressed in a juvenile delinquency hearing. However, the Court decided that the Fourth Amendment applies to school officials.

Supreme Court Vote:  6-3

Argued:          March 28, 1984

Re-argued:     October 2, 1984

Decided:         January 15, 1985

Majority Opinion:

Justice White

Concurrences:

Justice Powell, with Justice Day O’Connor

Justice Blackmun

Concurrence in Part and Dissent in Part:

Justice Brennan, with Justice Marshall

Justice Stevens, with Justices Marshall and Brennan

Reasoning

The Court held that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures is not limited solely to the actions of law enforcement personnel.  It also applies to the conduct of public school officials.  Public school teachers act as agents of the state, and not merely agents of the students’ parents.  Thus, the Fourth Amendment applies to their actions. 

The Court also held that students have some legitimate expectation of privacy at school.  However, the students’ expectation of privacy must be balanced against the needs of school authorities to maintain an educational environment.  As such, school authorities do not need to obtain a warrant or have probable cause that a crime occurred before searching a student.  Rather, the reasonableness of a search, under all circumstances, will determine its legality.

The Court established the following test to determine the reasonableness of a search:  whether the search was 1) justified at its inception and 2) as the search was conducted, was it reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first place. 

Finally, the Court evaluated the facts of T.L.O.’s search in light of this test.  First, the Court concluded that the search was justified at its inception.  The initial report from the teacher that T.L.O. had been smoking in violation of school rules constituted reasonable suspicion that cigarettes were in her purse (a fact that would be relevant to the smoking accusation). 

Second, the Court noted that the discovery of rolling paper provided reasonable suspicion that T.L.O. possessed marijuana, and this justified the further search of her purse.  Since the school administrator’s actions were justified at the inception and were reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference, the search was reasonable.  Although the Court held that the Fourth Amendment applied to the school administrator’s actions, the court ultimately determined that his actions in this case did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

In a concurrence, Justice Powell, joined by Justice O’Connor, agreed with the majority’s opinion, but he would have emphasized the fact that, in a school setting, the Constitution may not afford students all of the constitutional protections they would otherwise have in a non-school setting.

In a concurrence, Justice Blackmun agreed with the majority. However, he emphasized that the need for school authorities to immediately respond to threats to safety and to protect the education environment would justify a special exception from the Fourth Amendment’s warrant and probable cause requirements for school searches. 

Justice Brennan, joined by Justice Marshall, concurred in part and dissented in part.  Justice Brennan, joined by Justice Marshall, agreed with the Court’s finding that the Fourth Amendment applies to public school teachers and that school officials may generally search students without a warrant.  However, he disagreed with the Court’s holding that reasonable suspicion as opposed to probable cause should be the test for determining whether such searches may be permitted. Applying the probable cause standard, Justice Brennan held that the school administrator’s actions violated T.L.O.’s rights and, thus, the evidence from the illegal search should be suppressed.

Justice Stevens, in his concurrence in part and dissent in part, noted that the Court should address the original issue, i.e., whether the exclusionary rule applies to searches made by public school officials and teachers in school. Justice Stevens concluded that the search was not justified at its inception because the school administrator had no reason to believe that T.L.O.’s purse contained evidence of criminal activity or a violation of school rules at the time that he searched it. Thus, the search violated the Fourth Amendment and the evidence should be suppressed.

Disclaimer (Please Note):  This activity is meant to help high school students understand, as part of their civics education, the key facts and holdings of a well-known U.S. Supreme Court case. A link is provided to the Supreme Court decision. This activity is not meant to provide a legal analysis of this case or any related matters. It in no way provides legal advice or guidance on this or other issues. 

Background: Putting the Case into Context

Fourteenth Amendment, Fourth Amendment, and Incorporation of the Bill of Rights

The Fourteenth Amendment

The provisions of the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution, i.e., the Bill of Rights (1791), originally were applicable only to the federal government, and not to state governments. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. It says, in relevant part, “[N]or shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” In a series of cases starting in 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the 14th Amendment as “incorporating” (applying) most but not all of the provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. 

Incorporation of the Fourth Amendment

In several cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has incorporated various provisions of the Fourth Amendment, and related judicial rulings, to the states. For instance, in Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961), the Court held that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures was applicable to States. Also applicable to the states was the exclusionary rule (a remedy by which evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment is inadmissible in court). As a result of these incorporations, the U.S. Supreme Court had the authority to decide whether the actions of the school administrator in T.L.O.’s case violated the U.S. Constitution.

Importance of State Constitutions

Each state has its own Constitution, including some form of a state Bill of Rights, as well as laws.  The states are free to interpret their Constitutions and laws in a manner that gives more protections to individuals than the U.S. Constitution.  However, they cannot interpret them in a manner that gives less protection.  The U.S. Supreme Court found that the school administrator’s actions in T.L.O.’s case did not violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as applied to the states through the 14th Amendment.

It is possible that the New Jersey courts, applying the New Jersey Constitution and laws, could find that the school administrator’s actions violated New Jersey’s equivalent of the Fourth Amendment.  In Footnote 10 of the majority opinion, Justice White makes this point, saying: “Of course, New Jersey may insist on a more demanding standard under its own Constitution or statutes.  In that case, this court would not purport to be applying the Fourth Amendment when they invalidate a search.”