Locker Searches

Locker searches are common occurrences in American public schools. The use of locker searches has proliferated in recent years due to continuing threats of drugs and violence. Many school officials view locker searches as an indispensable tool to deter negative behaviors, and on the whole, lower courts seem clearly to side with the efforts of school officials to curb crime by conducting locker searches. While recent acts of violence in schools justify their use, students’ privacy interests and school safety should be equally balanced. Although locker searches may represent a minimally intrusive search, their unchecked use could very well weaken students’ expectations of privacy. This entry reviews the case law on this issue.

An Early Case on Privacy

In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its first decision clarifying the Fourth Amendment rights of students. Although New Jersey v. T. L. O. afforded school officials greater flexibility by way of permitting searches of students based on the less rigid “reasonable suspicion” standard (as opposed to the “probable cause” expected of the police), the Court acknowledged that students are entitled to legitimate expectations of privacy.

Justice White, author of the majority in T. L. O., recognized this expectation, writing as follows:

School children may find it necessary to carry with them a variety of legitimate, noncontraband items, and there is no reason to conclude that they have necessarily waived all rights to privacy in such items merely by bringing them onto school grounds. (p. 339).

Although the presumption that students relinquish all privacy is clearly rebutted, the Court chose not to offer specific implementation guidelines with regard to privacy protection in lockers, desks, or other forms of school property, nor did it place any restrictions on mass suspicionless searches. The Court’s refusal to elaborate is not unusual given its usual deference to the expertise of school officials in administrative matters.

In T. L. O., interest groups such as the National School Boards Association (NSBA) rallied in support of school officials’ powers in maintaining safety and order through so-called friend-of-the-court briefs. As to lockers, the NSBA contended that since student lockers are neither student domiciles nor “castles,” they are not protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Mass Suspicionless Searches

Two subsequent U.S. Supreme Court cases, Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995) and Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls (2002), validated the constitutionality of mass suspicionless searches, specifically random drug testing, through a threepart analysis. The analysis involved assessing students’ privacy interest, the relative unobtrusiveness of the searches, the severity of the need to justify such a search, and the likelihood that it would achieve its goal.

Lower courts apply similar analyses in justifying mass locker searches. At the same time, there appears to be a fair amount of consensus across lower courts regarding the degree to which privacy in lockers should be afforded. Case law reflects a trend of upholding searches on the basis that doing so is clearly in the best interest of maintaining school safety and order.

Courts typically view mass locker searches as a minimally intrusive method of confronting drug and weapons problems. In Commonwealth v. Cass (1998), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that a search of 2,000 high school lockers was reasonable at its inception, in light of suspicious activity that included students’ use of beepers, students’ dilated eyes, and students carrying around large amounts of money, as well as reasonable in scope because of the minor intrusiveness of the type of search.

Similarly, in State of Iowa v. Marzel Jones (2003), a scheduled locker cleanout for the purposes of “[ensuring] the health and safety of the students and staff and to help maintain the school’s supplies” (p. 144) resulted in the discovery of a blue jacket containing a small amount of marijuana. Initially, the identity of the student to whom the locker was assigned was unknown, but it was later discovered. The student was eventually charged but prevailed in an Iowa district court, which ruled that the evidence was illegally obtained. The Supreme Court of Iowa reversed an earlier decision to the contrary in relying heavily on the three-part test enunciated in Earls; the court concluded that school officials acted reasonably under the circumstances.

In re Patrick Y. (2000) may best reflect the state and national press toward school safety. A school security officer obtained a tip that drugs and weapons had been reported in the middle school portion of the campus. After the principal was informed, the security officer was authorized to search all lockers in the middle school campus. Asearch of a book bag within a locker revealed a knife and pager—both school violations. While the student argued that a lack of reasonable suspicion along with the intrusiveness of a book bag search violated the legitimate expectations of privacy afforded to students in T. L. O., the Court of Appeals of Maryland affirmed a bylaw of the state board of education that students have no reasonable expectation of privacy in temporarily assigned lockers.

Individual Searches

As these cases demonstrate, courts rarely find that mass locker searches undermine the Fourth Amendment. As for individualized searches, the tendency is much the same. In M. E. J. v. State of Florida (2002), in which a middle school student smelling of marijuana was loitering in the faculty parking lot, a school official subsequently searched his locker and discovered a knife. Consequently, the student was charged with possession of a weapon on school premises. The student unsuccessfully claimed that school officials violated his Fourth Amendment rights because the suspicion was based on drugs and not the knife. An appellate court affirmed that the knife was legally obtained evidence because educators had already met the standard of reasonable suspicion.

In another case, an appellate court in Ohio upheld an individualized search of two students that yielded a marijuana pipe but censured the school’s use of a blanket random locker search as unreasonable, since educators lacked an inadequate basis on which to act (In re Adam, 1997).

Mario S. Torres, Jr.

See also Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls; Drugs, Dog Searches for; In Loco Parentis; New Jersey v. T. L. O.; Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton

Further Readings

  • Gregory, G. H., Steinhilber, A. W., & Shannon, T. A. (1984). Amicus curiae brief for New Jersey v. T. L. O. (No. 83–712). Alexandria, VA: National School Boards Association. 
  • Stefkovich, J. A., & Torres, M. S. (2003). The demographics of justice: Student searches, student rights, and administrator practices. Educational Administration Quarterly, 39, 259–282. 

Legal Citations

  • Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002), on remand, 300 F.3d 1222 (10th Cir. 2002). 
  • Commonwealth v. Cass, 709 A.2d 350 (Pa. 1998). 
  • In re Adam, 697 N.E.2d 1100 (Ohio Ct. App. 1997). 
  • In re Patrick Y., 746 A.2d 405 (Md. 2000). 
  • M. E. J. v. State of Florida, 805 So. 2d. 1093 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2002). 
  • New Jersey v. T. L. O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985). 
  • State of Iowa v. Marzel Jones, 666 N.W. 2d 142 (Iowa 2003). 
  • Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995).