#29 of Genova Burns' Anniversary Countdown of the 30 Most Influential Cases, Events and Laws

#29 – New Jersey vs. TLO (1985)

May 30, 2019

This case qualified the role of schools and their administrators in the reasonable search and seizure of student property and seizing evidence without the presence of law enforcement. While maintaining students’ rights under the Fourth Amendment while on school property, the case put limits on those rights, holding school officials to a reasonableness standard as opposed to a heightened probable cause standard. 

The initial decision from Juvenile Court was appealed to the New Jersey Appellate Division, then to New Jersey State Supreme Court, and ultimately to the United States Supreme Court. In the end, the United States Supreme Court found that evidence seized by a school official – without involvement of law enforcement officials – was reasonably obtained and should be allowed as evidence at juvenile delinquency proceedings.

“The protection of the Bill of Rights is at the foundation of our rights as Americans, but our educational institutions are responsible for keeping children safe and maintaining discipline while school is in session. School officials, while operating in a reasonable manner, felt it necessary to search the student’s property and subsequently contact law enforcement,” said Jennifer Mazawey, Esq., Partner at Genova Burns. “This case was a significant challenge to the reach of the Fourth Amendment. The fact that the case made it to the country’s highest court, demonstrates that a definitive Constitutional interpretation was necessary, and the case has set federal precedent for similar challenges in the future.”


In a New Jersey high school, a teacher found two girls smoking in a school restroom and took them to the principal’s office. One girl admitted to smoking but the other, known as TLO, denied it. The principal demanded to see the girl’s purse and found evidence that she was also selling marijuana at school. TLO was taken to the police station where she admitted to selling marijuana. Based on her confession and the evidence in her purse, the state of New Jersey brought charges against her. In a Juvenile Court, TLO argued that her Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure had been violated.

According to the Fourth Amendment, it is “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The court sided with the school, the decision was upheld on appeal, and TLO took her case to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which later found that the search was unreasonable and the evidence could not be used. The State of New Jersey appealed that decision to the United States Supreme Court, where they sought determination on whether evidence seized by a school official – without involvement of law enforcement officials – should be admitted as evidence at juvenile delinquency proceedings.

In 1985, a 6-3 decision by the United States Supreme Court, ruled that New Jersey and the school had met the "reasonableness" standard for conducting such searches at school. The Court concluded that, under the circumstances of this case, the search of TLO’s purse did not violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The high court said school administrators do not need to have a search warrant or probable cause before conducting a search, as students have a reduced expectation of privacy when in school, and that to maintain security and order in schools, school officials required a degree of flexibility when dealing with disciplinary procedures.

Tags: Anniversary CountdownFourth AmendmentConstitutionJennifer MazaweyBill of Rights