The Burger Court (1969–86)
Rights of Students
Do public school officials need probable cause before searching a student?
No, the Burger Court ruled in New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) that public school officials can conduct searches of students based upon a reasonableness standard rather than probable cause. The case involved a search by an assistant school principal of a fourteen-year-old girl whom a teacher suspected of smoking in the bathroom. An assistant principal searched the student’s purse, noticing cigarettes and rolling papers, which are associated with marijuana.
The student argued that the search of her purse violated her Fourth Amendment rights because the official did not have probable cause to search her. The state countered that the Fourth Amendment does not apply to searches conducted by school officials. The Court said neither party was correct. The Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment applied to student searches but that such searches could be justified based on a standard much lower than probable cause. This standard required the initial search to be justified at its inception and reasonable under the circumstances.
This reasonableness standard “will spare teachers and school administrators the necessity of schooling themselves in the niceties of probable cause and permit them to regulate their conduct according to the dictates of reason and common sense.” The Court concluded that the official’s search was reasonable under the circumstances.