Legal Reasoning

Published 07 Dec 2016

The Fourth Amendment states that “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 probably cause….” Therefore, according to the Supreme Court, a warrantless search does not violate the Fourth Amendment if the probable cause is supported by Oath or affirmation, and if the probable cause particularly describes both the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. (Searching, 2002 p. 7).

In Washington v. Chrisman, an officer of the Washington State University Police Department observed a student leave his dorm carrying a bottle of gin; because the student “appeared” to be under 21, the officer stopped him and asked for ID. The student requested to retrieve his ID from his dorm room. The officer stood in the doorway while waiting for the student to get his ID and noticed what he believed to be marijuana seeds and a pipe lying on the desk whereupon he entered the room, read the student his Miranda rights and further searched the room, yielding more marijuana and other controlled substances. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Washington Court of appeals stating that the officer had no right to enter the room and seize contraband without a warrant. (Find Law 2005 p. 2)

New Jersey v. T.L.O., in summary, relates a 1980 case in which a teacher at a high school in New Jersey found two girls smoking in the restroom. Because this violated school policy, the teacher escorted the girls to the principal’s office, where one readily confessed, but the other, T.L.O., denied the allegations. T.L.O. was then instructed to turn over her purse immediately to the principal; she did and he examined the contents, finding cigarettes, cigarette rolling paper, marijuana, a pipe, empty plastic bags, a significant amount of money in one-dollar bills, a list of students who owed T.L.O money, and letters implicating T.L.O. in dealing marijuana. (2005, p. 4). The juvenile court rejected T.L.O’s contention of Fourth Amendment violation, determining the principal’s search was reasonable. T.L.O. was sentenced to one year’s probation, but appealed her conviction to the appellate court, which also found no violation, whereupon she appealed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed the appellate court’s ruling, ordering the evidence found in T.L.O’s purse suppressed. The Supreme Court further found that mere possession of cigarettes was not, in fact, a violation of school rules, therefore the principal’s desire for evidence of smoking did not justify the search of the purse. The case was then sent to the Supreme Court of the United States who reversed the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling, holding that searches by school officials are constitutional without a warrant as long as they are “reasonable.”

Justice Blackmun wrote a concurring opinion, adding however that the Court omitted a crucial step in that while they correctly stated that “we have recognized limited exceptions to the probable-cause requirement where a careful balancing of governmental and private interests suggests that the public interest is best served,” the implication that the balancing test is the rule rather than the exception was troubling to him. He further stated that the government has an obligation to safeguard students, and if there is a need for an immediate response to threatening behavior, then the Court would be justified in excepting school searches from the warrant and probable-cause requirement. (2005, p. 15).

In the Board of Education v. Earls, the Tecumseh, Oklahoma School District adopted the Student Activities Drug Testing Policy, requiring all middle and high school students to consent to drug testing in order to participate in any extracurricular activity. Both Respondents, Lindsay Earls and Daniel James, along with their parents, brought action against the School District, alleging that the Policy violated Fourth Amendment rights, and stating that “the Drug Testing Policy neither addresses a proven problem nor promises to bring any benefit to students or the school.

” Justice Thomas, in delivering the opinion of the court stated that “while schoolchildren do not shed their constitutional rights when they enter the schoolhouse, Fourth Amendment rights are different in public schools than elsewhere; the “reasonableness” inquiry cannot disregard the schools’ custodial…responsibility for children.” (Board, 2002 p. 2). Justice Thomas further stated that testing students who participate in extracurricular activities is a “reasonably effective means of addressing the School District’s legitimate concerns in preventing, deterring, and detecting drug use.” (Board, 2002 p. 3). Justice Ginsberg, Stevens, O’Connor and Souter offered dissenting opinions, stating that the particular testing program upheld today “is not reasonable, it is capricious, even perverse.” (Board, 2002 p. 4).

It seems that the Supreme Court allows less latitude in violations of the Fourth Amendment in Colleges or adult cases than they do in the instances of middle school or high school cases. The rationale is that we must protect our children; they are obviously not considered adults until they reach the age of eighteen, therefore although certain searches or drug testing policies may stretch the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment, the “greater good” is that we are protecting our school-age children in the process, therefore it becomes acceptable. In the case of the college student, even though the seized contraband was in plain sight of the officer, even though the students consented to the search of their dorm room and freely confessed, the Supreme Court held that it was not reasonable for the officer to enter the room in the first place.

Had the same issue involved children under the age of eighteen, it is likely the Supreme Court would have held that it was in fact reasonable in the interest of safeguarding other students, or the “immediate response to threatening behavior.” Because of our responsibility to protect our children, their rights of privacy are not so clear-cut and the issue becomes fuzzy and not nearly so straightforward as the Fourth Amendment states.

The Tecumseh school policy of drug testing was considered “reasonable,” on one front because extracurricular activities are obviously not mandatory; therefore a student could avoid random drug testing and the ostensible violation of his Fourth Amendment Rights simply by choosing not to participate. A drug testing policy that involved all students who walked onto the school campus would likely be much harder to uphold, and much harder to prove the special needs rationale.


  • 2005 Street Law, Inc. (2005) New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985). Retrieved June 9, 2006 from: The Supreme Court Historical Society at:
  • Board of Education v Earls. (June 27, 2002). Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County, et al., Petitioners v. Lindsay Earls et al. Retrieved June 8, 2006 from:
  • Find Law for Legal Professionals. (1982). Washington v. Chrisman, 455 U.S. 1 (1982) Retrieved June 9, 2006 from:
  • Searching and Seizing. (July 2002). Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section Criminal pision United States Department of Justice. Retrieved June 8, 2006 from:
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