New Jersey v. T.L.O.: Exclusionary Rule, Purse Search (01/15/1985)

New Jersey v. T.L.O.

Did the school administrators have the right to search T.L.O’s purse without violation of the exclusionary rule?

T.L.O. is the name of the respondent.

Argued: 03/28/1984

Reargued: 10/02/1984

Decision Date: 01/15/1985

Decision Record: 6-3; yes

Justices in Favor: Warren Burger, Byron White, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O’Connor

Justices Dissenting: William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens

Effect of the Decision

This case shows that if schools receive some sort of evidence that a student may have been committing an illegal crime, this is enough reason to further search that student. The case also lead to the enforcement of the reasonable suspicion standard.

In Favor

In the representation of the side of New Jersey, attorney Allan J. Nodes argued, “In this case, the respondent was observed smoking a cigarette in a school restroom by a teacher.

The teacher took the student to the vice principal’s office and reported the incident to the vice principal.

After the teacher left, the student not only denied having smoked in the restroom but also stated that it couldn’t have been her because she didn’t even smoke.

After… following this statement, the vice principal asked for the student’s purse, and opened the student’s purse, finding a pack of cigarettes lying on the top.

He picked up the cigarettes and said something to the effect of,

‘You lied to me about smoking cigarettes.’

looked back in the purse, and saw rolling papers for cigarettes.

He believed these were indicative of the presence of drug paraphernalia in the purse, and continued to look through the purse.

He found marijuana and other indications that the marijuana was in the purse for purposes of distribution.

I don’t think there would be any distinction under New Jersey law between a minor consenting to a search and an adult consenting.

New Jersey has a slightly stricter standard than the federal standard concerning consent, and it would have been absolutely necessary that the juvenile be aware of her rights prior to the search taking place in order for it to be a consent search.

Because of this, the state has always conceded that it was not a consent search.”


Then in opposition, representing T.L.O., attorney Lois DeJulio claims, “This case arises in the factual setting of the public school system, but I would urge the Court not to let the context obscure the fact that the issues presented here are not ones of educational policy, but are rather ones of criminal law.

The question is not whether or under what circumstances schools may regulate the conduct of their students.

It is not whether this school may use certain types of evidence in its own internal disciplinary proceedings to form the basis for imposing school sanctions.

Rather, the question is whether a court of law may permit an individual to be convicted of a crime based upon evidence illegally seized from him by a government official.”


The majority opinion was written by Justice Byron White. He wrote, “Our conclusion that Mr. Choplick’s decision to open T.L.O.’s purse was reasonable brings us to the question of the further search for marihuana once the pack of cigarettes was located. The suspicion upon which the search for marihuana was founded was provided when Mr. Choplick observed a package of rolling papers in the purse as he removed the pack of cigarettes. Although T.L.O. does not dispute the reasonableness of Mr. Choplick’s belief that the rolling papers indicated the presence of marihuana, she does contend that the scope of the search Mr. Choplick conducted exceeded permissible bounds when he seized and read certain letters that implicated T.L.O. in drug dealing. This argument, too, is unpersuasive. The discovery of the rolling papers concededly gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that T.L.O. was carrying marihuana as well as cigarettes in her purse. This suspicion justified further exploration of T.L.O.’s purse, which turned up more evidence of drug-related activities: a pipe, a number of plastic bags of the type commonly used to store marihuana, a small quantity of marihuana, and a fairly substantial amount of money. Under these circumstances, it was not unreasonable to extend the search to a separate zippered compartment of the purse; and when a search of that compartment revealed an index card containing a list of “people who owe me money” as well as two letters, the inference that T.L.O. was involved in marihuana trafficking was substantial enough to justify Mr. Choplick in examining the letters to determine whether they contained any further evidence. In short, we cannot conclude that the search for marihuana was unreasonable in any respect.

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.”

Then in dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall said, “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.”

Also disagreeing with the majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “The schoolroom is the first opportunity most citizens have to experience the power of government. Through it passes every citizen and public official, from schoolteachers topolicemen and prison guards. The values they learn there, they take with them in life. One of our most cherished ideals is the one contained in the Fourth Amendment: that the government may not intrude on the personal privacy of its citizens without a warrant or compelling circumstance. The Court’s decision today is a curious moral for the Nation’s youth. Although the search of T.L.O.’s purse does not trouble today’s majority, I submit that we are not dealing with “matters relatively trivial to the welfare of the Nation. There are village tyrants as well as village Hampdens, but none who acts under color of law is beyond reach of the Constitution.” West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943).

I respectfully dissent.”

My Opinion:

In this case, I agree with the majority’s decision. The exclusionary rule applies only to evidence that has been illegally obtained. However, because the school authorities had already gotten a tip that T.L.O. was smoking in the bathroom, this resulted in the teacher physically going to the bathroom and seeing T.L.O. smoke in action. This was enough to justify a cursory search through her purse. After finding cigarette papers, this was enough evidence to allow them to search even further into her purse to see if there were any more hidden illegal item. Sure enough, they found marijuana.

This also did not violate the Fourth Amendment due to the fact that this was most definitely not an unreasonable search. The authorities had enough reason to justify their search of T.L.O’s purse. Had there been no evidence at all of T.L.O. smoking cigarettes in the school bathroom, then this could have been classified as an unreasonable search, and therefore a violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, this was not a search that was chosen randomly out of bias or anything else, so therefore, it was not a violation of any amendment, nor was the exclusionary rule applicable in this case.

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *