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Supreme Court Agrees To Rule On Limit to Student Searches

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Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to decide whether evidence seized unconstitutionally by school officials can be used to prosecute students for drug violations.

The Court's decision to review the issue stems from a Piscataway, N.J., high-school vice principal's search of a student's purse in March 1980. The student had been brought to the principal's office by a teacher who alleged that she found the girl in a bathroom smoking a cigarette, in violation of school rules.

The student, identified in court papers only as T.L.O., denied she had been smoking, prompting the vice principal to look through her purse. The official called the student's mother and the police after finding a pack of cigarettes and drug paraphernalia among her belongings. Under questioning by the police, T.L.O. admitted that she had sold 18 to 20 marijuana cigarettes to students in the school that morning.

The student's lawyer asked a state trial court to suppress the evidence of her drug transactions because it had been obtained in violation of the "exclusionary rule" crafted over the years by the Supreme Court to disallow evidence gathered by unconstitutional means.

The trial court in January 1982 denied the motion, found the student guilty of possession and intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance, and declared her delinquent. She was sentenced to one year of probation and was ordered to observe a "reasonable" curfew, at-tend school regularly, and complete a drug-therapy program.

In June of that year, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey upheld the lower court's decision to allow the evidence, but last August that decision was overturned by the state Supreme Court. (See Education Week, Aug. 17, 1983.)

The state high court also 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 must be based on significant and reliable information.

The high court also overturned similar lower-court decisions in a companion case, New Jersey v. Engerud. That lawsuit stemmed from the January 1980 search of a high-school student's locker after an anonymous telephone caller told school officials that the student was selling methamphetamine in school. The 21-year-old former student, who was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of intent to distribute a dangerous controlled substance, was killed in a motorcycle accident shortly after the high court overturned his conviction, making the case moot.

The state attorney general's office asked the Justices to overturn the state high court's decision in the T.L.O. case "because a school official is not primarily interested whether a conviction is later obtained and conducts searches too infrequently to adapt his methods to the proper rules."

"It is clear beyond doubt that when this Court developed the exclusionary rule, it did not intend to regulate the conduct of school officials who deal primarily with minor school disciplinary problems and infractions of school rules," the lawyers said in their brief in the case, New Jersey v. T.L.O. (Case No. 83-712). "Any incremental deterrent effect of suppression in a later criminal proceeding would be far outweighed by the costs to society of suppression of probative evidence of criminality."

The Court is expected to rule on the case before early summer.

In other action last week, the Court was asked to bar the estate of a handicapped railway worker from obtaining monetary damages from his employer under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The request was made by lawyers for the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) during oral arguments in Conrail v. Darrone, Administratrix of the Estate of Thomas LeStrange (No. 82-862).

Initially, the case revolved around whether the federal law prohibiting bias against otherwise qualified handicapped individuals in federally financed programs also covered employment discrimination.

Last fall, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in favor of that position. Following Mr. LeStrange's death, the focus of the case shifted to the question of whether his estate could collect monetary damages.

Lower federal courts have handed down conflicting opinions on the question of monetary damages under Section 504. The Supreme Court has thus far been silent on the issue.

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