In 1980, a teacher at Piscataway High School in New Jersey found two
girls smoking in a restroom. At the school, smoking in the restrooms was
a violation of school rules; smoking was allowed only in the designated
smoking area. The teacher escorted the two girls to the principal's
office, where they met with an assistant vice principal, Theodore
Choplick. One of the girls was T.L.O., a freshman who was 14 years old.
The girl who was with T.L.O. admitted that she had been smoking; T.L.O.,
however, denied the allegation, and said that she did not, in fact,
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., accusing her
of having lied about smoking in the restroom. As he removed the
cigarettes, he noticed a package of cigarette rolling papers, which he
believed were an indicator of involvement with marijuana. Therefore, he
proceeded with a more thorough search of T.L.O.'s purse. This search
yielded 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 and, at the request of the police, took her daughter to
the police station. Choplick turned the evidence from the purse over to
the police. At the police station, T.L.O. admitted that she had been
selling marijuana at school. As a result of T.L.O.'s confession and the
evidence from her purse, the State of New Jersey brought delinquency
charges against T.L.O. in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court of
T.L.O. tried to have the evidence from her purse suppressed,
contending that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. She also
claimed that her confession should be suppressed on the grounds that it
was tainted by the unlawful search. The juvenile court rejected her
Fourth Amendment arguments, although it conceded 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."
This is a lower standard than the "probable cause" standard, which is
required when police conduct a search.
The juvenile court concluded that Choplick's search was, therefore,
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 conviction to the appellate division, which found
no violation of the Fourth Amendment, but returned the case to juvenile
court for determination of a possible Fifth Amendment problem with
T.L.O.'s confession. T.L.O. then appealed the appellate division's
Fourth Amendment ruling to the Supreme Court of New Jersey.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed the appellate division's
ruling and ordered the evidence found in T.L.O.'s purse suppressed. The
New Jersey Court relied on Supreme Court of the United States precedent
to hold that whenever an "official" search violates constitutional
rights, the evidence may not be used in a criminal case. Furthermore,
the Supreme Court of New Jersey found that Choplick's search was not
reasonable. Mere possession of cigarettes was not a violation of school
rules; therefore, a desire for evidence of smoking in the restroom did
not justify the search. In addition, the further search of the purse was
not justified by the presence of cigarette rolling papers.
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
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.
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?