New Jersey v. T.L.O. – Closing the Schoolhouse Gate on the Fourth Amendment


Search and seizure doctrine is an area fraught with conceptual niceties.Courts face more than the usual difficulties when required to interpret the fourth amendment in the context of school searches. The amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials. It reads in pertinent part: “The right of the people to be secure… against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated… and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause …” A warrantless search is presumptively unreasonable unless it falls within one of the following judicially recognized exceptions to the warrant clause: good faith, consent, exigency, or where the search is conducted pursuant to a lawful arrest or administrative inspection.

The enforcement mechanism of the fourth amendment is the exclusionary rule, which prohibits the use of illegally seized evidence in subsequent criminal prosecutions. The rule aims to deter government misconduct by depriving government agents of the fruits of an illegal search. More importantly, the exclusionary rule protects the rights of those citizens who do become victims of illegal searches.

In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court held that the fourteenth amendment, as applied to the states, “protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures – Boards of Education not excepted.
The applicability of the fourth amendment to the states through the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment is a basic principle of constitutional law. Thus, state instrumentalities, including boards of education, are required to protect an individual’s right to be free of unwarranted invasions of privacy. The Court’s decision effectively makes evidence of wrongdoing that was unlawfully obtained by public school officials inadmissible in any subsequent criminal prosecution of a suspected student offender. Appropriately, the same constitutional requirement has now been extended to school disciplinary proceedings.

Recent Supreme Court decisions have tended to restrict the scope of protection traditionally available under the fourth amendment. Noting what he calls a “headlong rush [by the Supreme Court] into the conferral of broader police power” in the fight against drug trafficking, one commentator ex-pressed the concern that the drug trade may produce an injury even worse than the evil itself-atrophy of the fourth amendment and serious impairment of substantial liberties. In like manner, the Court’s concern for classroom discipline has led to a similar impairment of the fourth amendment rights of public school students.

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