New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985)

Supreme Court of the United States

New Jersey v. T.L.O.

Decided Jan. 15, 1985 – 469 U.S. 325


Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in this case to examine the appropriateness of the exclusionary rule as a remedy for searches carried out in violation of the Fourth Amendment by public school authorities. Our consideration of the proper application of the Fourth Amendment to the public schools, however, has led us to conclude that the search that gave rise to the case now before us did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Accordingly, we here address only the questions of the proper standard for assessing the legality of searches conducted by public school officials and the application of that standard to the facts of this case.


On March 7, 1980, a teacher at Piscataway High School in Middlesex County, N.J., discovered two girls smoking in a lavatory. One of the two girls was the respondent T.L.O., who at that time was a 14-year-old high school freshman. Because smoking in the lavatory was a violation of a school rule, the teacher took the two girls to the Principal’s office, where they met with Assistant Vice Principal Theodore Choplick. In response to questioning by Mr. Choplick, T.L.O.’s companion admitted that she had violated the rule. T.L.O., however, denied that she had been smoking in the lavatory and claimed that she did not smoke at all.

Mr. Choplick asked T.L.O. to come into his private office and demanded to see her purse. Opening the purse, he found a pack of cigarettes, which he removed from the purse and held before T.L.O. as he accused her of having lied to him. As he reached into the purse for the cigarettes, Mr. Choplick also noticed a package of cigarette rolling papers. In his experience, possession of rolling papers by high school students was closely associated with the use of marihuana. Suspecting that a closer examination of the purse might yield further evidence of drug use, Mr. Choplick proceeded to search the purse thoroughly. The search revealed a small amount of marihuana, a pipe, a number of empty plastic bags, a substantial quantity of money in one-dollar bills, an index card that appeared to be a list of students who owed T.L.O. money, and two letters that implicated T.L.O. in marihuana dealing.

Mr. Choplick notified T.L.O.’s mother and the police, and turned the evidence of drug dealing over to the police. At the request of the police, T.L.O.’s mother took her daughter to police headquarters, where T.L.O. confessed that she had been selling marihuana at the high school. 



In determining whether the search at issue in this case violated the Fourth Amendment, we are faced initially with the question whether that Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures applies to searches conducted by public school officials. We hold that it does.


Against the child’s interest in privacy must be set the substantial interest of teachers and administrators in maintaining discipline in the classroom and on school grounds. Maintaining order in the classroom has never been easy, but in recent years, school disorder has often taken particularly ugly forms: drug use and violent crime in the schools have become major social problems. Even in schools that have been spared the most severe disciplinary problems, the preservation of order and a proper educational environment requires close supervision of schoolchildren, as well as the enforcement of rules against conduct that would be perfectly permissible if undertaken by an adult. “Events calling for discipline are frequent occurrences and sometimes require immediate, effective action.” Accordingly, we have recognized that maintaining security and order in the schools requires a certain degree of flexibility in school disciplinary procedures, and we have respected the value of preserving the informality of the student-teacher relationship. 

How, then, should we strike the balance between the schoolchild’s legitimate expectations of privacy and the school’s equally legitimate need to maintain an environment in which learning can take place? It is evident that the school setting requires some easing of the restrictions to which searches by public authorities are ordinarily subject. The warrant requirement, in particular, is unsuited to the school environment: requiring a teacher to obtain a warrant before searching a child suspected of an infraction of school rules (or of the criminal law) would unduly interfere with the maintenance of the swift and informal disciplinary procedures needed in the schools. Just as we have in other cases dispensed with the warrant requirement when “the burden of obtaining a warrant is likely to frustrate the governmental purpose behind the search,” we hold today that school officials need not obtain a warrant before searching a student who is under their authority.

The school setting also requires some modification of the level of suspicion of illicit activity needed to justify a search. Ordinarily, a search—even one that may permissibly be carried out without a warrant—must be based upon “probable cause” to believe that a violation of the law has occurred. However, “probable cause” is not an irreducible requirement of a valid search. The fundamental command of the Fourth Amendment is that searches and seizures be reasonable, and although “both the concept of probable cause and the requirement of a warrant bear on the reasonableness of a search, … in certain limited circumstances neither is required.” Thus, we have in a number of cases recognized the legality of searches and seizures based on suspicions that, although “reasonable,” do not rise to the level of probable cause. 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, we have not hesitated to adopt such a standard.

We join the majority of courts that have examined this issue in concluding that the accommodation of the privacy interests of schoolchildren with the substantial need of teachers and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools does not require strict adherence to the requirement that searches be based on probable cause to believe that the subject of the search has violated or is violating the law. Rather, the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search. Determining the reasonableness of any search involves a twofold inquiry: first, one must consider “whether the … action was justified at its inception[;]” second, one must determine whether the search as actually conducted “was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.” Under ordinary circumstances, a search of a student by a teacher or other school official will be “justified at its inception” 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 will be permissible in its scope 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. 


Because the search resulting in the discovery of the evidence of marihuana dealing by T.L.O. was reasonable, the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision to exclude that evidence from T.L.O.’s juvenile delinquency proceedings on Fourth Amendment grounds was erroneous. Accordingly, the judgment of the Supreme Court of New Jersey is [r]eversed.

Justice BRENNAN, with whom Justice MARSHALL joins, concurring in part and dissenting in part.


I do not, however, otherwise join the Court’s opinion. Today’s decision sanctions school officials to conduct full-scale 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” it proclaims in this very opinion.


And it may be that the real force underlying today’s decision is the belief that the Court purports to reject—the belief that the unique role served by the schools justifies an exception to the Fourth Amendment on their behalf. If so, the methodology of today’s decision may turn out to have as little influence in future cases as will its result, and the Court’s departure from traditional Fourth Amendment doctrine will be confined to the schools.

On my view, the presence of the word “unreasonable” in the text of the Fourth Amendment does not grant a shifting majority of this Court the authority to answer all Fourth Amendment questions by consulting its momentary vision of the social good. Full-scale searches unaccompanied by probable cause violate the Fourth Amendment. I do not pretend that our traditional Fourth Amendment doctrine automatically answers all of the difficult legal questions that occasionally arise. I do contend, however, that this Court has an obligation to provide some coherent framework to resolve such questions on the basis of more than a conclusory recitation of the results of a “balancing test.” The Fourth Amendment itself supplies that framework and, because the Court today fails to heed its message, I must respectfully dissent.

* * *

Based on the standards set forth in T.L.O. and Redding, consider these potential actions by a school district:

May a school search the mobile phone of a student who was caught texting in class? Does it matter if the teachers search only to see who else was texting with the student or instead search the photos and other data on the phone? See Amy Vorenberg, Indecent Exposure: Do Warrantless Searches of a Student’s Cell Phone Violate the Fourth Amendment?, 17 Berkeley J. Crim. L. 62 (2012).

What about random locker searches aimed at finding drugs? What about requiring students to use clear backpacks or to walk through metal detectors when entering the school building?

We now turn to searches of public employees. Supervisors of public employees have a duty to monitor the work of subordinates for the public interest. Beyond reducing waste, fraud, and abuse, supervisors have the day-to-day responsibility of managing staff so that offices accomplish their goals. It remains unclear what privacy rights public employees maintain at work.

In the context of a public employee whose electronic communications were searched by supervisors, the Court in 2010 avoided resolving important questions about public employee privacy. The Court found the searches at issue “reasonable,” in part, because the employee’s behavior was egregious and the response of the employer unsurprising. Students should note what issues are not decided by the Court, in addition to noting the holdings.

Notes, Comments, and Questions 

On the same day as Skinner, the Court decided National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656 (1989), another case about drug testing public employees. A U.S. Customs Service program required drug testing of employees who sought promotion to jobs involving seizing illegal drugs or which required employees to carry firearms or handle classified materials. Again, the Court found the collection of urine samples to be a “search.” Again, the Court upheld the policy, holding that it was “reasonable” for the government to mandate the tests because of its “compelling interest in ensuring that front-line interdiction personnel are physically fit, and have unimpeachable integrity and judgment.” Comparing the practice to hypothetical searches of workers at “the United States Mint … when they leave the workplace every day,” the Court concluded that the “operational realities” of the Customs Service justified the testing.

By contrast, in Chandler v. Miller, 520 U.S. 305 (1997), the Court struck down a Georgia law requiring that candidates for certain state offices submit to drug tests. The state stressed “the incompatibility of unlawful drug use with holding high state office” and argued that “the use of illegal drugs draws into question an official’s judgment and integrity; jeopardizes the discharge of public functions, including antidrug law enforcement efforts; and undermines public confidence and trust in elected officials.” The Court was not persuaded, concluding, “[n]othing in the record hints that the hazards respondents broadly describe are real and not simply hypothetical for Georgia’s polity.” The Court noted that political candidates “are subject to relentless scrutiny—by their peers, the public, and the press.” The Justices stated that the suspicionless searches needed to track lower-profile employees—like those approved in Skinner and Von Raab—were not necessary for voters to vet candidates for election.

Drug Testing of Public School Students

The Court has repeatedly applied the reasoning of Skinner and Von Raab to public school policies that mandate the drug testing of certain students.  


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