Search and Seizure in Government Schools

Sep 16, 2014 by

Even before the Columbine and Sandy hook tragedies unleashed the latest wave of zero tolerance policies in public schools, the courts have struggled over the basic question of how to handle search and seizure in public schools. In particular, the courts have attempted to balance basic 4th Amendment protections against the desire of school administrators to have drug-free schools.

We’ll explore the key Supreme Court case addressing this question. We’ll then provide tips for how students can flex their rights in an environment where basic constitutional protections are less respected than they ought to be.

New Jersey v. T.L.O.

In the 1985 case New Jersey v. T.L.O., the Supreme Court attempted to clarify the scope of legal searches in public schools. The case involved a girl who was caught smoking cigarettes in a bathroom. After a subsequent search, a teacher found illegal drugs in her purse.

Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director of National Youth Rights Association, describes howNew Jersey v. T.L.O. changed everything about the application of the 4th amendment towards students.

“Ultimately the opinion of the court established a “reasonableness” approach to search and seizure rather than a “probable cause” approach as outlined in the constitution. This Supreme Court decision reinterpreted how the law applies in school with such wordings as: “reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence,” “reasonably related to the objectives of the search,” or “reasonably related in scope.” Clearly the court has created a new way to apply this law based on no precedent or prior interpretations. The court has thrown out the probable cause clause of the Fourth Amendment and invented a murky, dangerous classification of reasonableness. Clearly this will have the effect of further limiting the rights of students in public school.”

To illustrate this new standard, consider the the following scenario. If a police officer suspects someone of stashing illegal drugs in a bus station locker, the officer would usually need to obtain a warrant based on probable cause to search. However, if a public school teacher spots a glazed-eyed student furtively putting a suspicious package in their locker, this fact pattern might constitute reasonable suspicion. This alone would likely be enough to search the student’s locker. (Under New Jersey vs. T.L.O., no warrant would be needed.)

Students: How to Protect Your Rights

Despite the minuscule 4th Amendment protections afforded in public schools, students still have some options for protecting their rights. Most importantly, students have the right to remain silent when being interrogated by school officials.

Whether you are out on the street and being confronted by a police officer, or being called into your principal’s office, you always have the right to remain silent.

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