Supreme Court Hears Arguments in N.J. Search Case

By Alex Heard — April 04, 1984 5 min read

Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week on the question of whether the Fourth Amendment’s “exclusionary rule"--which excludes evidence obtained by unreasonable searches--applies to searches made by public-school officials and teachers.

The dispute is viewed as a significant test of the proper balance between students’ rights and the authority of school officials to control the school environment. The case is called State of New Jersey v. T.L.O. (Case No. 83-712).

The exclusionary rule is a legal doctrine that has traditionally been applied only to unreasonable searches by law-enforcement officers--not by school officials. But the New Jersey Supreme Court last August--reasoning that students’ right to privacy outweighs the schools’ obligation to maintain order--ruled that the Fourth Amendment also protects students from such searches while they are in school.

In doing so, the New Jersey court invalidated evidence used to prove that a 14-year-old girl (“T.L..O.”) was selling marijuana in high school.

Arguing in part that this interpretation would severely hamper the drug-policing and disciplinary authority of school officials, the state of New Jersey, joined by the state’s school-boards association, and the National School Boards Association, is asking the Supreme Court to overturn this ruling.

The state contends that the exclusionary rule should not be extended to school authorities and others who are not directly involved in law enforcement.

To do so, argued Allen J. Nodes, the state’s deputy attorney general, would require school officials to become continually involved with the “highly technical rules” surrounding searches and would detract from their main concern of maintaining discipline.

Mr. Nodes argued that application of the exclusionary rule in schools would “exact too great a societal cost” by impairing school authorities’ ability to enforce school discipline and by sending students the wrong message.

“Disrespect of criminal laws is not a lesson we should teach our students,” Mr. Nodes said last week.

Several Justices last week expressed concern about saddling school officials with the search requirements that police must follow. Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., for example, asked if school officials would have to attend special courses to keep up with legal developments in search procedures.

Illegal Evidence

Lois De Julio, a New Jersey public defender who represented the student in the case, contended that the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches conducted by personnel of any government agency, including public-school officials who act under state authority.

“The issues here are not of educational policy but of criminal law,’' she said. “The question simply is whether a court of law can convict a person on the basis of illegally obtained evidence.”

It is necessary to uphold the lower court’s opinion, Ms. De Julio said, to deter educators from conducting unreasonable searches.

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger at one point asked Ms. De Julio, “What about the cost to parents of children to whom this student was selling drugs?”

Ms. De Julio replied: “The drug problem in schools should be dealt with, but the question here is whether we throw out students’ Fourth Amendment rights to do so.”

In a more technical aspect of the case, the lawyers representing the student are also contending that the Supreme Court does not properly have jurisdiction in this case and should dismiss it.

Began in 1980

The case began in March 1980, when a teacher at Piscataway High School caught “T.L.O.” and another girl smoking in a bathroom--a violation of school rules. Taken before the assistant principal, one of the girls admitted to smoking, but “T.L.O.” did not.

The assistant principal then took her to a private office and asked her to turn over her purse. While searching through the purse, the official found a pack of cigarettes, marijuana, assorted drug paraphernalia, including cigarette-rolling papers, a wallet containing “a lot of singles and change,” and a list and two letters that suggested the student was selling drugs.

The assistant principal called the girl’s mother and the police. Under questioning, the student admitted she was selling marijuana in school, and she was subsequently charged with juvenile delinquency. In March 1981, she was sentenced to probation for one year.

State of New Jersey v. Engerud--a companion case, included in the New Jersey Supreme Court decision, that involved a search of a high-school student’s locker based on information that the student was selling drugs in school--was declared moot following the death of the defendant in a motorcycle accident.

Impact-Aid Case

In other action last week, the Court agreed to decide whether a South Dakota funding statute is unconstitutional because it is in conflict with a federal law that provides payments to local government units in lieu of property taxes on federal lands.

The case is called Lawrence County v. Lead-Deadwood School District No. 40-1 (Case No. 83-240).

Under the Payments in Lieu of Taxes Act of 1976, the federal government must compensate local governments for property taxes lost when it acquires large amounts of property--for example, for an addition to the National Park System.

Lead-Deadwood school officials brought suit in state circuit court against the Lawrence County commissioners in February 1982 to force them to disburse funds that local schools were to receive under the law. The school district would have received 60 percent of those funds under a South Dakota law that says all federal payments in lieu of taxes must be distributed in the same manner as state taxes.

County officials countersued, claiming that the federal law states that funds received under the act could be used for any local-government purpose. Under the Sixth Amendment’s supremacy clause,” they argued, federal laws supersede state laws when the two are in conflict.

In 1982, the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school district.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 1984 edition of Education Week as Supreme Court Hears Arguments in N.J. Search Case