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Search and Seizure in Florida Schools: The Effect of Police Involvement

Criminal Law

In 1985, the Supreme Court of the United States announced the landmark decision of New
Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985), holding that the search provisions of the Fourth Amendment to the federal Constitution applied to school officials. School officials, however, would be held to a “reasonable suspicion” standard, rather than the “probable cause” standard required for law enforcement. T.L.O. also defined what is “reasonable” as depending on the context within which a search takes place, and held that the warrant requirement was unsuited to the school environment.1

A point of occasional controversy in T.L.O. is the statement that school officials do not need probable cause to justify a search of a student as long as the official is not acting at the behest of the police.2 This language has been misconstrued by some as prohibiting police involvement in any school search. Increased violence in our schools coupled with the increasing police presence has amplified the need to clarify this point in Florida.

New Jersey v. T.L.O.

In T.L.O., a New Jersey high school teacher discovered a 14-year-old freshman (T.L.O.), and another student smoking cigarettes in a school restroom, which was a violation of school policy. The students were taken to the principal’s office where they were questioned by school officials. T.L.O. denied smoking and the assistant vice principal demanded to examine her purse. Inside the student’s purse, the vice principal initially found a pack of cigarettes and a package of cigarette rolling papers. The vice principal continued to search the purse and discovered marijuana, a pipe, plastic bags, a substantial amount of cash, a card listing students who owed money to T.L.O., and letters implicating her in selling marijuana.3

The Supreme Court of the United States, in T.L.O., recognized that the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures applies to searches of students by public school officials,4 and stated in T.L.O. that what is “reasonable” depends on “the context within which a search takes place.”5 The Court further stated, in a footnote, that school officials do not need probable cause to justify a search of a student as long as the school official is not acting as an agent of the police.6 Moreover, in this same footnote, it stated: “This case does not present the question of the appropriate standard for assessing the legality of searches conducted by school officials in conjunction with or at the behest of law enforcement agencies, and we express no opinion on that question.”7

While the powers of the school official to search were adequately defined in T.L.O., the involvement of police in a school search has been less than clear. The issue of acting in “conjunction” with law enforcement has been a point of controversy in Florida.

Clarifying the Rule of T.L.O.

Although Florida has just recently addressed the issue of a school official requesting police assistance to conduct a search, the law had been settled in other states, even prior to T.L.O.8 While regarded as a landmark decision, T.L.O. merely reinforced what was already the law in several jurisdictions. In the case of In Re Boykin, 237 N.E.2d 460 (Ill. 1968), the Supreme Court of Illinois upheld the denial of a motion to suppress in a school search case. In Boykin, a high school principal received anonymous information that Boykin had a gun and the principal informed the two police officers assigned to his school. The officers and the principal went to the classroom and removed Boykin to the hall. An officer ordered Boykin not to move his hands and asked if he had a gun. Boykin denied having a gun. The other officer then removed a gun from the pocket of the student’s pants.9

Boykin moved to suppress the gun on the grounds that no probable cause existed for his arrest, and the search was, therefore, unlawful. The Supreme Court of Illinois, in affirming the denial of the motion to suppress, held “ that the appropriate person to appraise the danger was the school official ” who is required to maintain discipline and “to act for the safety and supervision of the pupils in the absence of their parents.”10

Similarly, in In Re Fred C., 102 Cal. Rptr. 682 (Cal. Ct. App. 1972), a California appellate court held that a school official’s use of the police to assist in a search did not render the search unreasonable. In Fred C., a student suspected of selling drugs on campus refused a vice principal’s request to empty his bulging pockets. The vice principal then enlisted the assistance of a police officer to search the suspect, whereupon narcotics were discovered.11 In affirming the denial of the suspect’s motion to suppress, the California court determined that the evidence showed that the police officer did not conduct the search, but only assisted the school officials at their request.12

The California court concluded that the officer was not making a police investigation, but rather was “acting as agent” for the school official.13 The California court further held that the Constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches does not proscribe solicitation and use of professional assistance by school officials in conducting an authorized search for good cause.14 The court in Fred C. concluded that the student, as well as the vice principal, benefited by the officer’s presence and participation, preventing a hostile, physical defiance of authority.15

School Searches in Florida

In T.L.O, it was held that “the accommodation of the privacy interests of school children with the substantial need of teachers and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools does not require strict adherence to the requirement that searches be based on probable cause.”16 Existing Florida law is not contradictory to the holding in T.L.O. It specifically prohibits searches at the direction of law enforcement officers.17 Unlike Illinois and California, there were no Florida cases that supported a school official requesting a law enforcement officer to conduct a search for him or her. That changed in March 1997, when the Second District Court of Appeal ruled on a school search case involving such a scenario.

In J.A.R. v. State, 689 So. 2d 1242 (Fla. 2d DCA 1997) , an eighth grade student told a teacher that a classmate, J.A.R., was carrying a gun. The teacher sent the student informant to the principal’s office with a note reporting the problem. The assistant principal then summoned the assistance of the “school resource officer,” a deputy sheriff assigned to the school. The assistant principal explained the situation to the deputy and the two men went to the classroom and asked J.A.R. to come outside. Once outside, the deputy asked J.A.R. if he had a gun, and the juvenile acknowledged that he did. The deputy then performed a pat-down and felt the holstered pistol in J.A.R.’s waistband.18

The trial court denied J.A.R.’s motion to suppress. The Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision, stating:

It would be foolhardy and dangerous to hold that a teacher or school administrator, who often is untrained in firearms, can search a child reasonably suspected of carrying a gun or other dangerous weapon at school only if the teacher or administrator does not involve the school’s trained resource officer or some other police officer.19

The court also stated that “[t]he fact that the school official prudently asked a law enforcement officer to assist in this search does not increase the level of suspicion needed to perform a pat-down of a student.”20

In Florida, school boards have potential civil liability if school officials fail to take reasonable steps to protect students from assaults by other students. In T.J. v. State, 538 So. 2d 1320, 1321 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989), a Florida case dealing with a search for a knife, the Second District held that when student safety is an issue, the reasonableness of a search should weigh heavily in favor of the school official.

School officials today are encountering situations not envisioned in years past, and they are not trained or equipped to deal with armed encounters, nor should they be expected to do so. Rather, the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances of the search.21 In T.L.O., Justice White stated:

Determining the reasonableness of any search involves a twofold inquiry: first, one must consider “whether the. . . action was justified at its inception,” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S., at 20, 88 S. Ct., at 1879; second, one must determine whether the search as actually conducted “was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place,”. . . Under ordinary circumstances, a search of a student by a teacher or other school official will be “justified at its inception” when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school.22

In deciding J.A.R., the Second District Court of Appeal looked to the Illinois case of People v. Pruitt, 662 N.E.2d 540 (Ill. App. Ct.), appeal denied, 667 N.E.2d 1061 (Ill. 1996), which presented similar facts as those in J.A.R. In Pruitt, the Illinois court stated that “[j]udges cannot ignore what everybody else knows: violence and the threat of violence are present in the public schools.” In facing such threats, school teachers and administrators should be able to rely on law enforcement for assistance. Further, law enforcement now may provide that assistance without unnecessary Fourth Amendment concerns.


Today, in Florida, the “involvement” of a law enforcement officer in a school search is not fatal to the search. Although the law continues to prohibit school officials from conducting searches on behalf of law enforcement, school officials with reasonable suspicion to search can confidently request law enforcement assistance when needed. With violence and weapons becoming more prevalent, law enforcement assistance has become an unfortunate necessity in the schools. To that end, Florida courts have now taken a common sense approach to the problems that school officials are facing today. q

1 T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 342, n.7.
2 Id. (emphasis added).
3 Id. at 328.
4 Id. at 333.
5 Id. at 337.
6 Id. at 341, n.7.
7 Id.
8 For example, police participation in school-directed searches was upheld in California as early as 1972, and in Illinois in 1968. See, e.g., In Re Boykin, 237 N.E.2d 460 (Ill. 1968); and In Re Fred C., 102 Cal. Rptr. 682 (Cal. Ct. App. 1972).
9 Boykin, 237 N.E.2d at 461.
10 Id. at 462 (emphasis added).
11 Fred C., 102 Cal. Rptr. at 684.
12 Id. at 685.
13 Id.
14 Id. at 685–86.
15 Id. at 685.
16 T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 341 (emphasis added).
17 See, e.g., A.J.M. v. State, 617 So. 2d 1137 (Fla. 1st D.C.A. 1993); F.P. v. State, 528 So. 2d 1253 (Fla. 1st D.C.A. 1988); M. J. v. State, 399 So. 2d 996 (Fla. 1st D.C.A. 1981).
18 J.A.R., 689 So. 2d at 1243.
19 Id. at 1244.
20 Id. at 1243.
21 T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 341.
22 Id. at 341–42.

Robert L. Martin, a graduate of the Cumberland School of Law, is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama. Professor Martin was previously an assistant attorney general and represented the State of Florida before the Second District Court of Appeal in J.A.R. v. State.

This column is submitted on behalf of the Criminal Law Section, Claire K. Luten, chair, and Randy E. Merrill, editor.

Criminal Law