When May A School Official Conduct A Search Of A Student And What Is The Permissible Scope Of That Search?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
New Jersey v. TLO, 469 U.S. 325 (1985).
This case answers the following question:
When may a school official conduct a search of a student and what is the permissible scope of that search?
This case lays out another exception to the warrant requirement, but not in the usual context of police searches; instead, it deals with the context of a school official’s search of a student. Id. at 330. Because school officials are government actors, the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures apply to their actions taken towards students. Id. at 334. However, this change of scenery brings with it unique considerations, with the Court must weigh to determine exactly what is reasonable in these circumstances. Id. at 337-38. Ultimately, the Court determines that, just as with stop-and-frisks, a search is reasonable if “justified at its inception” and “reasonably related in scope” to the circumstances at play. Id. at 341.
In this case, two students were found smoking cigarettes in the bathroom of a New Jersey public school. Id. at 328. The students were brought to the principal, where on immediately confessed. Id. The defendant, however, denied the allegation. Id. This caused the principal to open the defendant’s purse, where he found not only a pack of cigarettes, but also marijuana and other evidence indicating defendant was selling marijuana. Id. This ultimately lead to the defendant being convicted in Juvenile Court. Id. at 329.
The Court began by quickly establishing that the Fourth Amendment was in play, based upon the principal’s status as a state official. Id. at 334. The state attempted to argue that school officials acted with the authority of parents, or in loco parentis, thereby falling outside the Amendment’s scope. Id. at 336. The Court found this argument unpersuasive, noting that schools were being controlled more by laws than by the wishes of parents. Id.
However, the Court noted that the competing needs at issue in such a case are unique to the school system. Id. at 337. The children’s privacy interest is familiar, but in this situation, the government’s interest is “maintaining discipline in the classroom and on school grounds.” Id. at 339. The Court acknowledged that the “preservation of order and a proper education environment requires close supervision of children,” which requires more flexibility than policing. Id. at 340. This, accordingly to the Court, excuses the warrant requirement. Id.
Instead, the Court fashioned a two-prong consideration to ensure these warrantless searches remain reasonable. Id. at 341. First, the search must be justified by “reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will [produce] evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school.” Id. at 342. Second, the search must be limited in scope. Id. This is accomplished by having the search activity be reasonably related to the objectives of the search, but not “excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.” Id. This standard was met in the present case, as the principal had both reasonable grounds and limited his search to a permissible scope by only searching the defendant’s purse. Id. at 347-48.
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