School lockers: What can a teacher search?

Though it's legal for a school to search a locker without a warrant, there are limitations to determine when they can and can't.

by Niranjan Thiagarajah
updated May 11, 2023 ·  4min read

hand opening locker

We've all seen enough crime shows to know what to do if the police knock on your door and demand to search your property: stand, look indignant and demand to see their warrant.

After all, it's your property, and unless you give permission or a judge orders the search, you should have control over what you have, right? Yes, provided you're not a student.

If you're in a school environment, teachers and administrators can search without either permission or a warrant.

Even so, students still have rights, and knowing which searches are illegal might just save your child some time in front of the school board.

Reasonable grounds for search

In a case called New Jersey v. TLO, the Supreme Court decided teachers' and administrators' need to maintain order outweighs the privacy interests of students. But that does not mean that school officials can just search anybody at any time.

School searches are only justified according to the Supreme Court, "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 school."

California's own state Supreme Court has expanded upon the ruling by stating that "reasonable grounds" must be supported by "articulable facts." Random searches and searches based on hunches or rumors are not justified.

The US Supreme Court has also stated that the manner in which the search is conducted must be "reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction."

Translation of the law

It is difficult to state beforehand whether or not a particular search is reasonable. Some searches are clearly illegal, for example, if a teacher searches a student's locker on a hunch or for no reason. 

If a teacher suspects that a person has contraband only in his locker, then a search of that student's backpack probably isn't justified either.

However, these rules are not hard and fast. Since most search cases are complicated with factors that justify and nullify the search at the same time, the courts consider each case individually.

How the courts approach the evidence

The following is a list of some questions the courts consider to determine whether or not a search of a student or school locker is reasonable:

Is the search based on an anonymous tip?

In general, courts don't place a lot of confidence in people who report crimes anonymously. However, if a student walks up to a teacher and reports a crime and then walks away, the tip isn't anonymous, even if the teacher doesn't know the student and doesn't remember the student later.

Who reported the crime or violation?

A teacher or parent is more reliable than another student. In one case, a search was upheld when a concerned parent notified the vice-principal that a specific student was seen with a gun. The court specifically stated that concerned parents are a trusted source for information.

Where and when did the violation occur?

If a teacher is told that a student was seen with a gun one year ago, then that doesn't justify a search of the student's locker. Likewise, if a teacher is told that a student was smoking marijuana at a friend's house, that may not justify a search of his locker at school.

Was a specific student or a group of students identified?

If one student is named, then the information is more reliable and the search is more likely to be justified. On the other hand, if the informant points to a group of students without naming a particular person, the information is less reliable.

What was the nature of the violation?

A lot of the previous factors depend on each other and especially depend what type of violation is suspected. Possession of a gun on school campus is taken much more seriously than possession of cigarettes. In one case, a student that was being accused of fighting pointed to another group of students and claimed that one of them had a gun.

Although this student's motives were suspect (he was trying to avoid trouble himself) and although he couldn't identify which particular person had the gun, the court justified the search of the entire group because the threat of a gun on campus was of paramount importance.

What if the search is illegal?

If a search was conducted illegally, then the contents of the search may be suppressed in a criminal action. Students only have this right with respect to criminal prosecutions.

Whereas an American adult must obey the laws of the government, the student must obey the laws of the school board. In Gordon v. Santa Ana Unified School District, marijuana was found in an illegal search of the student's pockets by the principal.

After a school board hearing, the student was suspended from school for one year. Although the search was found to be illegal by the courts and the student did not face criminal prosecution, he could not suppress the evidence at the school board hearing. As such, his suspension was upheld.

The bottom line

Practically speaking, it is never a good idea for a student to keep contraband on themselves, in their purses or backpacks, or in their lockers. However, if a search is conducted without their consent, and they are prosecuted as a result of that search, the best thing to do is to consult with an attorney that has experience in criminal law. An experienced attorney can offer sound advice on whether the search can be attacked and the evidence suppressed.

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About the Author

Niranjan Thiagarajah

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This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.