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New Jersey's High Court Strictly Limits Student Searches

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The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in two cases last week that the Fourth Amendment protects students from unreasonable searches and seizures while they are in school.

In doing so, the state's highest court invalidated evidence that two students were selling drugs in their high schools. In the first case, State in the Interest of T.L.O., school officials obtained evidence after searching a 14-year-old girl's purse that she was selling marijuana to other students. In the second case, State of New Jersey v. Engerud, officials used a pass key to open the locker of an 18-year-old student and obtained evidence that he was selling methamphetamine.

According to the court's ruling, handed down on Aug. 8, the students' right to privacy outweighed "the schools' obligation to maintain order."

Furthermore, the court established a new three-part test that New Jersey school officials must use in the future to determine whether a search is permissible. Under that test, the problem must be "prevalent and serious," it must be urgent, and the justification for the search must be based on significant and reliable information.

Gwendolyn H. Gregory, deputy legal counsel for the National School Boards Association, called the court's decision "unfortunate," adding that "it would not appear to protect the interests of children."

"There is no degree of unanimity in these types of cases at either the federal or state court levels," Ms. Gregory said. "It's difficult to find a common thread. But I think it would be fair to say that, at least in the cases of lockers, courts will lean toward the point of view of the schools, particularly if they have made clear from the start to students that the lockers are public property and that they reserve the right to inspect them."

According to Richard Emery, a lawyer for the New York Civil Liberties Union who has handled similar cases, the New Jersey's court's decision is "significant because it carefully balances the very important right of student privacy with the very important right of school officials to control the school environment."

"The opinion is very well reasoned and school officials would be well advised to take heed," he added. "Although the ruling is limited to New Jersey, I imagine it will have a national impact."

Smoking Reported

The T.L.O. case began on March 7, 1980, when a teacher at Piscataway High School reported to an assistant principal that two girls were smoking in a bathroom. One of the girls admitted to smoking, but the other did not.

The assistant principal then took the girl who denied smoking to a private office and asked her to turn over her purse. While searching through the purse, the official found a pack of cigarettes, assorted drug paraphernalia, an index card listing the names of students who owed the girl money, and two letters suggesting that she was involved in drug dealing.

The assistant principal called the girl's mother and the police, and eventually she admitted that she sold marijuana. She was subsequently charged with juvenile delinquency.

The Engerud case goes back to Jan. 29, 1980, when a police detective told the vice principal of Somerville High School that an anonymous caller had accused a student of selling drugs. The vice principal then told the principal, who recalled that he had heard a rumor to that effect a year earlier.

The school officials then opened the student's locker with a pass key and found two bags of methamphetamine in a coat pocket. The princi-pal called the police and the student's parents, then called the student into his office. The student was told to empty his pockets, and he produced a small quantity of marijuana.

The student subsequently pleaded guilty to a charge of intention to distribute a dangerous controlled substance, and was sentenced to serve up to five years in a state penitentiary. His sentence was stayed pending appeal.

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