In 1980, a teacher at Piscataway High School in New Jersey found two
girls smoking in a restroom. One of the girls was T.L.O., a freshman who
was 14 years old. Smoking in the restrooms was a violation of school
rules (but was permitted in other areas of the school). The teacher took
the two girls to the principal's office, where they met with Assistant
Vice Principal Theodore Choplick. The second girl admitted that she had
been smoking. T.L.O. said she had not been smoking and said that she did
not smoke at all.
Choplick took T.L.O. into his office and instructed her to turn over
her purse. He opened the purse and found a pack of cigarettes. He took
the cigarettes out of the purse and showed them to T.L.O. He accused her
of having lied about smoking in the restroom. As he removed the
cigarettes, he noticed a package of cigarette rolling papers. He
believed that cigarette rolling papers were a sign of involvement with
marijuana. Therefore, he decided to search further in T.L.O.'s purse. He
found the following items: a small amount of marijuana, a pipe, empty
plastic bags, a significant amount of money in one-dollar bills, a list
of students who owed T.L.O. money, and letters implicating T.L.O. in
Choplick then called T.L.O.'s mother and the police. The mother came
to the school. The police asked her to take her daughter to the police
station. Choplick gave the items from the purse to the police. At the
police station, T.L.O. admitted that she had been selling marijuana at
school. As a result of her admission and the evidence from the purse,
the State of New Jersey brought delinquency charges against T.L.O. in
the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court of Middlesex County.
T.L.O. tried to have the evidence from her purse kept out of court,
saying that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. She also argued
that her confession should be suppressed, because it resulted from the
illegal search. The juvenile court turned down her Fourth Amendment
arguments, although it did agree that the Fourth Amendment applies to
searches by school officials. However, it held that a school official
may search a student if that official has a "reasonable suspicion that a
crime has been or is in the process of being committed, or reasonable cause to believe that the search is necessary to maintain school discipline or enforce school policies."
The juvenile court concluded that Choplick's search was reasonable.
Choplick was justified in searching the purse, the Court said, because
of his reasonable suspicion that T.L.O. had violated school rules by
smoking in the restroom. When he opened the purse, evidence of marijuana
use was in plain view. This justified the further search of the purse.
T.L.O. was found to be a delinquent and, in January 1982, she was
sentenced to one year of probation.
T.L.O. appealed her case in the New Jersey courts. The Supreme Court
of New Jersey found that Choplick's search was unreasonable. The state
In 1983, the Supreme Court of the United States granted the State of New Jersey's petition for certiorari. In 1985, the Court handed down its decision.
Questions to Consider:
Read the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Using the words
of the Amendment, try to make an argument that the search of T.L.O.'s
purse was a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights.
Now try to make an argument that the Fourth Amendment does not apply to students in public schools at all.
Under the circumstances outlined above, does the search of T.L.O.'s purse seem "reasonable" to you? Why or why not?
What procedures are in place in your school governing searches
of students? Could a search like the one in this case happen in your
How should the Supreme Court of the United States rule in this case?