New Jersey v. T.L.O.
The rights of a school district trumped the individual rights of a student in New Jersey v. T.L.O., a landmark Supreme Court case in 1985. The court determined that the school administrator had acted properly and did not need a search warrant to examine the 14-year-old girl’s handbag.
Searches and seizures are considered “reasonable” if evidence is found in plain sight. The school administrator suspected that a regulation had been broken and in looking for evidence found more than he expected.
A student was caught smoking in the bathroom in her public school. When the principal questioned her about it she denied smoking. When the principal searched her handbag to look for evidence of smoking he found more incriminating material, including a small amount of marijuana, a list of other students who owed her money and written material pertaining to the sale of drugs. The principal reported the student to police.
In juvenile court, T.L.O. was convicted of drug possession and sentenced her to a year of probation on charges of delinquency despite her objection that the search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment and evidence should be suppressed.
The state appellate court upheld the juvenile court’s finding but the New Jersey Supreme Court sided with the student, agreeing that the search violated her Fourth Amendment rights. When the state appealed the New Jersey Supreme Court’s finding to the U.S. Supreme Court, the search of the student’s handbag was deemed “reasonable” and the verdict was overturned.
Two justices added their opinion to the decision, saying that relying on a school administrator’s definition of “reasonableness” rather than the firmer standard of “probable cause” that’s stated in the Fourth Amendment.