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Court Backs Administrator's Search of Student Vehicle

An administrator's search of a student's car on school grounds need only meet the reasonable suspicion standard, rather than the more stringent standard of probable cause, to be constitutional, New Jersey's highest court has ruled.

The search by the assistant principal of Egg Harbor Township High School of a student's car for suspected drugs passed muster under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the New Jersey Supreme Court held unanimously.

Administrators searched 18-year-old Thomas E. Best's car in May 2006 after learning that he had sold a pill to another student. The search turned up drug paraphernalia, marijuana, and several pills of the painkiller diazepam. Best was charged with various drug counts and sought to suppress the vehicle search as unconstitutional. When a trial court upheld the search, Best pleaded guilty to distribution of diazepam on a school campus but appealed the ruling on the legality of the search.

A state appellate court upheld the search, and in a Feb. 3 decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court did so as well.

"We hold that a school administrator need only satisfy the lesser reasonable grounds standard rather than the probable cause standard to search a student's vehicle parked on school property," said the unanimous opinion in State of New Jersey v. Best.

The court noted that the reasonable suspicion standard for searches by school administrators stems from its own 1983 decision in the T.L.O. case about a search of a student's purse after the student was caught smoking in the restroom. The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed and upheld the reasonableness standard in its 1985 decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O.

In the Egg Harbor case, the state high court rejected arguments from the defendant and the American Civil Liberties Union that students have a greater expectation of privacy in their cars than in their purses or lockers in the school building.

"The need for school officials to maintain safety, order, and discipline is necessary
whether school officials are addressing concerns inside the school building or outside on the school parking lot," the court said.

Most other courts that have weighed administrator searches of student cars on campus have also applied the reasonable suspicion standard, not probable cause, the court said.

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