Search and Seizure Laws on School Campuses

By Phin Upham

If you’re a school administrator, and you catch a student smoking in the bathroom do you have the right to search her belongings? That was the issue at the heart of a 1985 Supreme Court Case addressing the constitutionality of search and seizure laws on school campuses. This is an important ruling considering the instances of gun violence in modern American school campuses, so it’s important to observe this ruling and how it can be applied in a modern context.

Two Piscataway High School freshmen were caught smoking in a bathroom on campus. Both were escorted to the New Jersey school’s principal office, where they met with the assistant Vice Principal. He spoke with the girls separately. One admitted to smoking cigarettes, the other (named TLO in the case) denied any wrongdoing.

TLO was forced to hand over her purse to the assistant Vice Principal, who then opened it to find the pack of cigarettes next to rolling papers. Upon further inspection, the assistant Vice Principal uncovered a bag of marijuana, some paraphernalia, several $1 bills and a list of names that appeared to owe the student money for dealing drugs.

She fought the seizure, but the courts ruled against her. They claimed that whether the girl possessed cigarettes was the issue at hand, but in proving that claim one would reasonably assume the girl would hide the cigarettes in her purse (which she did). The drug-related evidence fell into “plain view” which is an important legal concept used to justify further searching of one’s effects.

This case helped to establish that search and seizure laws do apply to school campuses, which meant the search of the purse was constitutional. The major criticism, of course, is what constitutes a “hunch” versus a reasonable suspicion.

About the Author: Phin Upham is an investor at a family office/ hedgefund, where he focuses on special situation illiquid investing. Before this position, Phin Upham was working at Morgan Stanley in the Media and Telecom group. You may contact Phin on his Phin Upham website or LinkedIn page.