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State in the Interest of T.L.O.

September 26, 1980


Nicola, P.J.J. & D.r.


This written opinion is intended to supplement the oral opinion previously rendered by the court.

A complaint was filed in this court alleging that a 15-year-old juvenile possessed marijuana with the intent to distribute, in violation of N.J.S.A. 24:21-20(a)(4) and 24:21-19(a)(1). The juvenile, herein referred to as T.L.O., was accused of illegally possessing marijuana found in her purse. Evidence obtained through a search of the juvenile's purse by a school's vice-principal indicated that the juvenile had been selling marijuana to other students in school.

Prior to this hearing on the complaint the juvenile filed a motion in the Superior Court, Middlesex County, Chancery Division, to show cause why T.L.O. should not be reinstated in school, having been suspended for smoking cigarettes and possessing marijuana. Judge David Furman, J.S.C., heard the matter on March 31, 1980 and upheld the suspension for smoking cigarettes but vacated the suspension imposed for possession of marijuana. The court found that the suspension for possession of marijuana resulted from evidence obtained in a warrantless search of the juvenile's purse, in violation of the Fourth Amendment's guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Presently before the court for its consideration is a motion to dismiss the complaint and suppress the evidence. The juvenile

argues that the complaint should be dismissed on the basis of res judicata and collateral estoppel stemming from the prior proceeding. Additionally, the juvenile argues that her due process rights were violated by an unlawful search and seizure conducted by the assistant vice-principal and seeks to have this evidence suppressed.

This complaint arises from an occurrence on March 7, 1980. A Piscataway High School teacher observed the juvenile and another girl smoking cigarettes while in the girls' lavatory. The teacher escorted the girls to the assistant vice-principal's office and accused them of violating the school's no-smoking restriction. When asked by the vice-principal whether she had, in fact, been smoking in the girls' room, T.L.O. replied that "she didn't smoke at all." With this conflicting response the vice-principal requested the student's purse and upon inspection found a package of cigarettes plainly visible. While removing the cigarettes, marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia became visible. Further inspection revealed $40.98 in single dollar bills and change, as well as a handwritten letter by T.L.O. to a friend asking her to sell marijuana in school.

The assistant vice-principal summoned the police and turned over the marijuana and paraphernalia to them. The juvenile's parents were also notified. In the presence of her mother at police headquarters, T.L.O. admitted to selling marijuana in school, after being advised of her rights. She stated that on the day in question, she had sold approximately 18 to 20 marijuana cigarettes for a price of one dollar each.

T.L.O. was suspended from school for three days for smoking cigarettes and seven days for possession of marijuana. As previously indicated, the juvenile obtained an order to show cause why she should not be reinstated in school. At the hearing on that matter the judge found that the search conducted by the vice-principal violated the Fourth Amendment guarantees. Any consent to the search of the purse by the juvenile was ruled ineffective due to a failure to advise her that she had a right to withhold such consent.

The juvenile now seeks to raise the findings of the civil proceeding as a bar to this matter through a motion to dismiss. She asserts the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. Additionally, the juvenile wishes to suppress the evidence by addressing the constitutionality of the search conducted by the vice-principal.

This court will first address the constitutionality of the search and seizure; more specifically, the issue is whether or not a school official is subject to the Fourth Amendment and the standard of probable cause which must exist before said official may engage in a search of a student on school grounds in order to enforce a disciplinary rule.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated . . . ."

The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit all searches and seizures, but only unreasonable ones. The reasonableness of a search is determined by a balancing of the government's interests in conducting a search with the individual's right to be free from intrusion. See Camara v. Municipal Court , 387 U.S. 523, 87 S. Ct. 1727, 18 L. Ed. 2d 930 (1967). Generally, police officials are required to obtain a search warrant based upon probable cause except for a few "jealously and carefully drawn" exceptions. Coolidge v. New Hampshire , 403 U.S. 443, 91 S. Ct. 2022, 29 L. Ed. 2d 564 (1971). To avoid circumvention of the probable cause requirement through warrantless searches the same standard of probable cause is imposed to justify a warrantless search. Wong Sun v. United States , 371 U.S. 471, 83 S. Ct. 407, 9 L. Ed. 2d 441 (1963). There have been instances, however, where the government's need to search has been held to outweigh the intrusion upon the person's privacy, and the Supreme Court has allowed a lower standard as justification for a constitutionally valid search. Terry v. Ohio , 392 U.S. 1, 88, S. Ct. 1868, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889 (1968) (stop and frisk); United States v. Martinez-Fuerte ,

428 U.S. 543, 96 S. Ct. 3074, 49 L. Ed. 2d 1116 (1976) (routine stops at permanent border checkpoints).

The Supreme Court, however, has long been vigilant in protecting the rights secured by the Fourth Amendment, as is evidenced by its adoption of the exclusionary rule. The exclusionary rule, as enunciated in Weeks v. United States , 232 U.S. 383, 34 S. Ct. 341, 58 L. Ed. 652 (1914), allows suppression of evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Initially applied only in federal courts, Mapp v. Ohio , 367 U.S. 643, 81 S. Ct. 1684, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1081 (1961) has since extended the rule to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. However, the court has held that the Fourth Amendment's proscription only applies to unreasonable searches and seizures made by governmental officials. Burdeau v. McDowell , 256 U.S. 465, 41 S. Ct. 574, 65 L. Ed. 1048 (1921).

The vigilance of the Supreme Court is evidenced as well by its recognition of the constitutional rights and protections belonging to juveniles. In re Gault , 387 U.S. 1, 87 S. Ct. 1428, 18 L. Ed. 2d 527 (1967) (procedural due process); In re Winship , 397 U.S. 358, 90 S. Ct. ...

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