New Jersey v. T. L. O.

New Jersey v. T. L. O. (underage)
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued March 28, 1984
Reargued October 2, 1984
Decided January 15, 1985
Full case name New Jersey v. T. L. O.
Citations 469 U.S. 325 (more)
105 S. Ct. 733; 83 L. Ed. 2d 720; 1985 U.S. LEXIS 41; 53 U.S.L.W. 4083
Prior history Defendant convicted sub. nom. State ex rel. T. L. O. 178 N.J.Super. 329, 428 A.2d 1327 (Middlesex County Ct., 1980); Affirmed 185 N.J.Super. 279, 448 A.2d 493 (App. Div., 1982); conviction reversed 94 N.J. 331, 463 A.2d 934 (1983)
(1) Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures applies to searches conducted by public school officials, and (2) search of student's purse was reasonable.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority White, joined by Burger, Powell, Rehnquist, O'Connor
Concurrence Powell, joined by O'Connor
Concurrence Blackmun
Concur/dissent Brennan, joined by Marshall
Concur/dissent Stevens, joined by Marshall, Brennan
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend IV

New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985) is a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States addressing the constitutionality of a search of a public high school student for contraband after she was caught smoking. A subsequent search of her purse revealed drug paraphernalia, marijuana, and documentation of drug sales. She was charged as a juvenile for the drugs and paraphernalia found in the search. She fought the search, claiming it violated her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling, held that the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.



On March 7th, 1980, two Piscataway Township High School freshmen were caught smoking cigarettes in the bathroom. Smoking at the school in itself was not prohibited; however, students were only supposed to smoke in a designated smoking area. The teacher took the two girls to the principal's office, in which they met with the assistant vice principal, Theodore Choplick. Choplick questioned them about violating a school rule by smoking in the bathroom. The first girl admitted to smoking, but the other girl – known as Tracy Lois Odem (name not confirmed, as her rights were protected due to age) – denied smoking in the bathroom and stated she had never smoked in her life.

Choplick then asked Tracy Lois Odem into his private office and demanded she hand over her purse. Upon opening the purse he observed a pack of cigarettes; while removing the cigarettes he noticed a package of rolling papers. Based on his experience, the possession of rolling papers of high school students was closely tied to the use of marijuana. Choplick then began a more thorough search for the evidence of drugs. His search revealed a small amount of marijuana, a pipe, empty plastic bags, a large quantity of money in $1 bills, an index card that appeared to list students who owed Tracy Lois Odem money, and two letters that implicated Tracy Lois in dealing marijuana. The principal then called the police and the girl's mother, who voluntarily drove her to the police station.

Opinion of the Court

The Supreme Court of the United States, in a 6-3 decision issued by Justice White, between the individual's—even a child's—legitimate expectation of privacy and the school's interest in maintaining order and discipline, said that New Jersey won the case. According to school officials, they do require a "reasonable suspicion" to perform a search.

Therefore, her possession of any cigarettes was relevant to whether or not she was being truthful, and since she had been caught in the bathroom and taken directly to the office, it was reasonable to assume she had the cigarettes in her purse. Thus, the vice-principal had reasonable cause to suspect a school rule had been broken, and more than just a "hunch" to search the purse. When the vice-principal was searching for the cigarettes, the drug-related evidence was in plain view. Plain view is an exception to the warrant requirement of the 4th Amendment. Thus, the reasonable search for cigarettes led to some of the drug related material being discovered, which justified a further search (including the zippered compartments inside the bag) resulting in the discovery of the cigarettes and other evidence including a small bag of marijuana and cigarette rolling papers.

The Supreme Court overturned the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling.

The Court also stated that states have a duty to provide a safe school environment.

Distinguished from collaborative efforts

In footnote 4 of the majority opinion, the Court noted that its holding applied only to school authorities acting on their own, not for any searches that were conducted in concert with or at the behest of law enforcement agencies. As that issue had not been raised by this case, the Court specifically noted that it was expressing no opinion on the subject.

- Amendment: 4th Amendment - Legal Question: Do students in school have the same rights under the 4th Amendment as adults? Does “probable cause” have to be established for the search of a student in school, or is “reasonable cause” enough? - A teacher found T.L.O. and another girl smoking in a restroom - Two girls were taken to the principal's office where T.L.O. denied smoking - An assistant vice-principal demanded to see T.L.O.'s purse - Searching through it he found a pack of cigarettes, rolling papers, a pipe, marijuana, a large wad of dollar bills, and two letters that indicated that T.L.O. was involved in marijuana dealing at the high school


In a separate, concurring opinion, Justice Powell (joined by Justice O'Connor) stated that while he agreed with the Court's opinion, he felt that students in primary and secondary educational settings should not be afforded the same level of protection for search and seizures as adults and juveniles in non-school settings.


Justice Brennan, joined by Justice Marshall, agreed with the majority's reasoning regarding a balancing approach to school searches. He disagreed, however, with the new standard set down by the Court, which he felt was a departure from the traditional "probable cause" approach. He explained:

"Today's decision sanctions school officials to conduct fullscale searches on a 'reasonableness' standard whose only definite content is that it is not the same test as the 'probable cause' standard found in the text of the Fourth Amendment. In adopting this unclear, unprecedented, and unnecessary departure from generally applicable Fourth Amendment standards, the Court carves out a broad exception to standards that this Court has developed over years of considering Fourth Amendment problems. Its decision is supported neither by precedent nor even by a fair application of the 'Balancing test of power' it proclaims in this very opinion."

See also


  • Text of New Jersey v. T. L. O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985) is available from: Justia · Findlaw

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