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The West Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that a strip-search of a student that took place in a "nonemergency'' situation constituted an unreasonable search and seizure under the state and U.S. constitutions.

The 4-to-1 decision stemmed from a January 1992 incident at Marlinton Middle School in Buckeye. A 14-year-old student identified as Mark Anthony B. was suspected of stealing $100 from a teacher's purse. The school's principal ordered a strip-search in the school bathroom, and found the money inside the student's underwear.

A county circuit court sentenced the youth to one year in a juvenile-detention facility. On appeal, the state high court last month vacated the conviction and sentence.

In arguing for the legality of the strip-search, the state had cited a 1993 Kentucky Supreme Court ruling and a 1991 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Both of those decisions supported warrantless searches of student lockers suspected to contain drugs.

However, in the current decision, Justice W.T. Brotherton Jr. wrote that "looking inside of a student's underwear is an invasion of personal privacy that should not be equated with search of a student's locker or other personal possessions.''

Noting that several federal appellate courts have reached different conclusions on the issue of student strip-searches, Martin Saffer, the student's lawyer, predicted that the matter will eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

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