School Administrators Now Need Only "Reasonable Grounds" to Search Student Vehicles

February 3, 2010

By: Donald E. Souders, Jr.

On February 3, 2010, the New Jersey Supreme Court rendered a decision that clarified a school administrator?s ability to search a student?s car while located on school property. In State vs. Thomas Best, the Court ruled that a school administrator need only satisfy the lesser ?reasonable grounds? standard, as opposed to the more stringent ?probable cause? standard, when searching a student?s vehicle parked on school property.

In the Best case, a high school principal searched a student?s car while it was located in the high school auto shop for service. The student had brought his car to school with permission, for the purpose of having service done thereto. During the school day, another student was confronted by the principal after being suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. That student identified the defendant-student as the individual who had supplied him with the ?green pills? in question. A subsequent search of the defendant-student?s person and locker yielded nothing. Knowing that his car was parked in the high school auto shop, the principal conducted a warrant-less and non-consensual search of the car which yielded marijuana and other contraband. At that juncture, the student made a full confession. He was subsequently charged with various drug-related offenses.

Prior to trial, the student filed a Motion to Suppress, arguing that the principal?s warrantless search was violative of his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court denied this Motion and the Appellate Division affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court then heard the case and affirmed the trial court?s denial of the student?s Motion to Suppress. In its analysis, the Supreme Court restated the long standing rule that a warrantless search is presumed invalid unless it falls within a ?recognized exception to the warrant requirement.? These Constitutional protections were extended to students and minors by the United States Supreme Court in State in the Interest of T.L.O., 94 N.J. 331 (1983) and 469 U.S. 325 (1985). However, the United States Supreme Court made it clear that a ?reasonableness standard? was the appropriate legal standard, as opposed to the ?probable cause? standard, in cases involving student searches.

In the Best case, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided, for the very first time, how the standard enunciated by the United States Supreme Court in T.L.O. would be applied to the search of a student?s vehicle ? versus his person or locker. The Best Court adopted the same standard utilized in many other jurisdictions across the United States. Specifically, the Court recognized the need for school officials to maintain safety, order and discipline both inside and outside on the school parking lot. The Court specifically stated, ?[i]t is the school environment and the need for safety, order and discipline that is the underpinning for the school official ? who has reasonable grounds to believe that a student possesses contraband ? to conduct a reasonable search for such evidence?we concluded that the reasonableness standard, and not the traditional warrant and probable cause requirements, applies to the school authorities? search of a student?s automobile on school property. After articulating the aforementioned legal standard, the New Jersey Supreme Court went on to affirm the search of the defendant-student?s car.

While each case will be judged on its own particular facts, school officials should find some comfort in the standard articulated by the New Jersey Supreme Court in the Best case when balancing a student?s Constitutionally-protected privacy interests against the significant need to protect staff and students. When there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a student has drugs, weapons or other contraband, a school administrator may conduct a warrantless search of the student?s person, locker or automobile.

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