Last updated on: 12/22/2009 | Author:

New Jersey v. T.L.O.

Decided on Jan. 15, 1985; 469 US 325

The search of a student’s purse was not in violation of the Fourth Amendment because the school’s officials had “reasonable suspicion” to believe that the search will prove that the student violated the school’s rules.


A. Issues Discussed: Search and seizure, privacy

B. Legal Question Presented:

Did the warrantless search of a 14-year-old high school student’s purse by the Assistant Vice Principal violate the Fourth Amendment?


A. Background:

“A teacher at a New Jersey high school, upon discovering respondent, then a 14-year-old freshman [referenced in the case as T.L.O.], and her companion smoking cigarettes in a school lavatory in violation of a school rule, took them to the Principal’s office, where they met with the Assistant Vice Principal. When respondent, in response to the Assistant Vice Principal’s questioning, denied that she had been smoking and claimed that she did not smoke at all, the Assistant Vice Principal demanded to see her purse.

Upon opening the purse, he found a pack of cigarettes and also noticed a package of cigarette rolling papers that are commonly associated with the use of marihuana. He then proceeded to search the purse thoroughly and found some marihuana, a pipe, plastic bags, a fairly substantial amount of money, an index card containing a list of students who owed respondent money, and two letters that implicated her in marihuana dealing.

Thereafter, the State brought delinquency charges against respondent in the Juvenile Court, which, after denying respondent’s motion to suppress the evidence found in her purse, held that the Fourth Amendment applied to searches by school officials but that the search in question was a reasonable one, and adjudged respondent to be a delinquent.

The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s finding that there had been no Fourth Amendment violation but vacated the adjudication of delinquency and remanded on other grounds.

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed and ordered the suppression of the evidence found in respondent’s purse, holding that the search of the purse was unreasonable.”

On certiorari, the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Lois De Julio reargued the cause for respondent. With her on the briefs were Joseph H. Rodriguez and Andrew Dillmann.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Mary L. Heen, Burt Neuborne, E. Richard Larson, Barry S. Goodman, and Charles S. Sims; and for the Legal Aid Society of the City of New York et al. by Janet Fink and Henry Weintraub.

Allan J. Nodes, Deputy Attorney General of New Jersey, reargued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief on reargument were Irwin J. Kimmelman, Attorney General, and Victoria Curtis Bramson, Linda L. Yoder, and Gilbert G. Miller, Deputy Attorneys General. With him on the briefs on the original argument were Mr. Kimmelman and Ms. Bramson.

Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the United States by Solicitor General Lee, Deputy Solicitor General Frey, and Kathryn A. Oberly; for the National Association of Secondary School Principals et al. by Ivan B. Gluckman; for the National School Boards Association by Gwendolyn H. Gregory, August W. Steinhilber, and Thomas A. Shannon; for the Washington Legal Foundation by Daniel J. Popeo and Paul D. Kamenar; and for the New Jersey School Boards Association by Paula A. Mullaly and Thomas F. Scully.


“The Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures applies to searches conducted by public school officials and is not limited to searches carried out by law enforcement officers. Nor are school officials exempt from the Amendment’s dictates by virtue of the special nature of their authority over schoolchildren. In carrying out searches and other functions pursuant to disciplinary policies mandated by state statutes, school officials act as representatives of the State, not merely as surrogates for the parents of students, and they cannot claim the parents’ immunity from the Fourth Amendment’s strictures.

Schoolchildren have legitimate expectations of privacy… But striking the balance between schoolchildren’s legitimate expectations of privacy and the school’s equally legitimate need to maintain an environment in which learning can take place requires some easing of the restrictions to which searches by public authorities are ordinarily subject.

Thus, school officials need not obtain a warrant before searching a student who is under their authority. Moreover, school officials need not be held subject to the requirement that searches be based on probable cause to believe that the subject of the search has violated or is violating the law. Rather, the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search.

Determining the reasonableness of any search involves a determination of whether the search was justified at its inception and whether, as conducted, it was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first place…

…Under the above standard, the search in this case was not unreasonable for Fourth Amendment purposes…”

The US Supreme Court reversed the Supreme Court of New Jersey judgment.

Justice Vote: 2 Pro vs. 7 Con

  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion in part)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion in part)
  • White, B. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O’Connor, S. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Con (Joined majority opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged affirmance of the judgment of the Supreme Court of New Jersey; the Supreme Court reversed in a 7-2 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.