Court Upholds ‘Reasonable’ Searches of Students

By Cindy Currence — January 23, 1985 7 min read
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Washington--Balancing the privacy rights of students against the need of public-school officials to maintain discipline requires “some easing” of the Fourth Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 6-to-3 decision last week.

Specifically, the Court found in New Jersey v. T.L.O. (Case No. 83-712) that public-school officials, acting alone and on their own authority, are not required to obtain a warrant prior to conducting a search of a student. In addition, the Justices reduced “the level of suspicion” required to justify the search of a student.

See Page 16 for the textof the Court’s decision.

Associate Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and John Paul Stevens, in partial dissenting opinions, criticized the majority opinion and stated that the Court had “unnecessarily and inappropriately reached out to decide a Constitutional question.”

The case involved a Piscataway, N.J., high-school official’s search of a student’s purse for evidence that she had violated a school rule prohibiting smoking in the lavatories. During the search, the official discovered drug paraphernalia and other evidence indicating that the student sold marijuana. The student confessed to police officials and was eventually declared delinquent by a trial court on the basis of the evidence discovered by the school official.

‘Careful Balance’

Associate Justice Byron R. White, writing for the majority, stated that “where a careful balancing of governmental and private interests suggests that the public interest is best served by a Fourth Amendment standard of reasonableness that stops short of probable cause, [the Court has] not hesitated to adopt such a standard.”

The standard adopted by the Justices in T.L.O. allows “a teacher or other school official” to search a student when “there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school.”

Such a search is permissible when the “measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction,” Justice White wrote.

But in setting a less strict standard for searches of students by public-school officials, the Court unanimously rejected the argument of attorneys for the state of New Jersey that Fourth Amendment protection does not apply at all to searches conducted by school officials.

But in setting a less strict standard for searches of students by public-school officials, the Court unanimously rejected the argument presented by attorneys for the state of New Jersey that Fourth Amendment protection does not apply at all to searches conducted by school officials.

“Some courts have concluded that school officials are exempt from the dictates of the Fourth Amendment by virtue of the special nature of their authority over schoolchildren,” wrote Justice White, adding that “such reasoning is in tension with contemporary reality and the teachings of this court.”

“We have held school officials subject to the commands of the First Amendment and the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment,” he wrote. “If school authorities are state actors for the purposes of the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and due process, it is difficult to understand why they should be deemed to be exercising parental rather than public authority when conducting searches of their students.”

Rights Not Waived

The Court also rejected the state’s claim that the pervasive supervision to which children in public schools are subject allows a child virtually no legitimate expectation of privacy in articles of personal property “unnecessarily” carried into a school.

“Although this Court may take notice of the difficulty of maintaining discipline in the public schools today,” Justice White wrote, “the situation is not so dire that students in the schools may claim no legitimate expectations of privacy. Nor does the state’s suggestion that children have no legitimate need to bring personal property into the schools seem well anchored in reality. ... Schoolchildren may find it necessary to carry with them a variety of legitimate, noncontraband items, and there is no reason to conclude that they have necessarily waived all rights to privacy in such items merely by bringing them onto school grounds.”

The Court acknowledged in a footnote to its opinion that it was leaving open the question, not addressed in this case, of whether a student has a legitimate expectation of privacy in lockers, desks, or other school property provided for the storage of school supplies.

Educators’ Response

Education and student-advocacy groups had mixed reactions to the Court’s decision. (See related story on page 15.)

Officials of teachers’ and administrators’ organizations said that the decision would give support to teachers and help guarantee a safe and orderly learning environment in schools.

But leaders of student-advocacy groups and the American Civil Liberties Union said they were dismayed by the opinion, arguing that allowing administrators and teachers to use a “reasonableness standard” for conducting searches rather than one of “probable cause” was giving too much power to them.

Generally, however, observers seemed to agree that the Court in its decision had merely put its stamp of approval on the standard practice of schools and the majority of rulings in the lower federal courts.

According to Richard Emory, staff counsel for the New York Civil Li-berties Union, “The decision was really a confirmation of the law as it presently exists in most states and is enforced in lower federal courts. It is neither an expansion or retraction of students’ rights.”

Constitutional Issue

In making its decision, the Court overturned a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the use of evidence obtained in the 1980 search of T.L.O.'s purse.

Although the state high court applied a “reasonable-grounds” standard similar to the one announced by the Justices last week, it ruled that the school official’s search was illegal. The court then overturned the declaration of delinquency against the girl, reasoning that the Fourth Amendment’s “exclusionary rule” barred the use of the evidence of her drug sales.

Although the Supreme Court had been asked by the state of New Jersey only to examine whether the exlusionary rule should have barred the evidence uncovered during the search, it decided to broaden its inquiry to examine the constitutionality of the search itself and found that the Piscataway school official’s action did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

‘Reasonable’ Search

The Justices concluded that the assistant principal’s decision to open T.L.O.'s purse was reasonable and that his further search for marijuana once drug paraphernalia were located also was reasonable.

In finding the search “reasonable,” the Court then chose to address only the question of the proper standard for assessing the legality of such searches when conducted by public-school officials.

The reasonableness standard adopted by the court “should ensure that the interests of students will be invaded no more than is necessary to achieve the legitimate end of preserving order in the schools,” the Justices stated in the majority opinion.

The majority opinion was joined in full by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Associate Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Lewis F. Powell Jr., and William Rehnquist.

Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun joined the majority but filed a separate opinion that emphasized the “special need” of school officials to be able to respond to discipline problems immediately. A separate concurring opinion was also filed by Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell.

‘Unnecessary Departure’

In addition to criticizing the Court for ruling on the constitutional question when it had been asked to rule on the exclusionary-rule issue only, Justice Brennan in his dissenting opinion called the majority opinion an “unclear, unprecedented, and unecessary departure” from Fourth Amendment standards requiring search warrants and the stricter standard of “probable cause.”

Justices Stevens and Marshall in their dissent challenged the standard set by the Court, claiming that it will permit school officials to search students when they believe the search will reveal evidence of even the most trivial school regulation.

They also wrote in their dissent that the Court’s decision in T.L.O. is a bad example for students:

“The schoolroom is the first opportunity most citizens have to experience the power of government. ... The Court’s decision today is a curious moral for the nation’s youth.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 1985 edition of Education Week as Court Upholds ‘Reasonable’ Searches of Students


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