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Fictional Scenario - New Jersey v. T.L.O.

The fictional scenario is based on the landmark Supreme Court case New Jersey v. T.L.O. Apply the Supreme Court's decision to a school search of an underage student’s backpack in which vaping materials were found.

Sandy Simmons is an 18-year-old senior at Sierra View High School in a state where the legal vaping age has been raised to 21. Sandy has a serious − but secret − vaping habit.  To keep her vaping on the down low, she starts an underground organization of underage vapers called The Salon. They meet discreetly at different places on and off campus where they vape and hang out.

When her state raises the legal vaping age, Sandy gets a group of Salon members together to order a large quantity of e-cigarettes and vaping pods on the Internet. She makes the purchase herself using a fake I.D. borrowed from her 21-year-old sister. The e-cigarettes arrive, she fills up her backpack and takes it to school.

A few weeks later, Sandy’s friend Bobby Browning gets caught vaping in the restroom by Vice Principal Mario Martin. When Mr. Martin walks him to the administrative office and closes the door, Bobby panics and admits to vaping. When asked, Bobby says he buys his vaping supplies from Sandy.

Mr. Martin calls Sandy into his office, where she denies the allegations. The vice principal asks Sandy to open her backpack. When she puts the backpack on a chair and unzips the largest compartment, Mr. Martin sees the packaging of a popular brand of e-cigarettes. He takes the backpack off the chair and unzips the other pockets. Sandy is very distressed and tells Mr. Martin that he is not her father and he has no right to invade her privacy. He finishes looking through the pockets and returns the backpack to her.  He then notices that a small notebook has fallen from the backpack.  When Mr. Martin picks it up from the floor and turns it over, he finds a list of names with dates and dollar amounts on the outside back cover.

Suspecting that Sandy is selling e-cigarettes, Mr. Martin asks her to turn over the backpack, which she does. Mr. Martin searches it and finds three, unopened e-cigarette packages and about $350 in cash. The vice principal calls the local police. They arrive and arrest Sandy.

An assistant U.S. attorney charges Sandy in federal court with conspiracy to violate 18 U.S.C. §2342, because of the Salon’s possession and distribution of e-cigarettes across state lines.  He also charges her with a violation of 18 U.S.C. §1028(a)(7) − identity fraud − because Sandy used her sister’s I.D. to buy the e-cigarettes. With Bobby’s cooperation, law enforcement collects evidence that Sandy sold e-cigarettes at school to persons under 21. Sandy is told that she has violated state and federal laws.

At her first hearing in federal court, Sandy, through her federal public defender, moves to suppress (keep out) the e-cigarettes and other items found in her backpack. Her attorney argues that the vice principal conducted an unlawful search of her backpack in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The public defender argues that, before the search, Mr. Martin did not have probable cause to go through Sandy’s backpack and there was no basis for believing that she violated any anti-vaping laws. The government argues against the motion, taking the position that, under the circumstances at school, the search was reasonable, and the evidence should be allowed into the trial.

The question before the U.S. District Court is:  Are students’ Fourth Amendment rights violated when school officials search a student’s backpack at school and seize illegally purchased e-cigarettes?

DISCLAIMER: These resources are created by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for educational purposes only. They may not reflect the current state of the law, and are not intended to provide legal advice, guidance on litigation, or commentary on any pending case or legislation.