The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a case involving the warrantless strip-search at school of a 4-year-old student by a county caseworker looking for evidence of abuse.
The case of I.B. v. Woodard (No. 18-1173) raised several important legal questions for educators, including whether a child welfare caseworker requires a warrant to strip-search a child and whether it was clearly established that such conduct was barred in Colorado under relevant federal court rulings.
Lawyers for the student and her mother, joined by several allies, also asked the justices to fundamentally reconsider their jurisprudence related to the doctrine of qualified immunity—the bedrock protection for educators and other government officials from personal liability as long as their conduct does not violate clearly established rights.
A growing number of legal scholars have questioned the doctrine of qualified immunity, and they have been joined by three current members of the court who have written or joined opinions that raised concerns about whether the doctrine goes too far in protecting government workers from liability when abuses occur. (On the current court, those justices are Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor.)
“Even as it frustrates the vindication of constitutional violations, the [qualified-immunity] doctrine is not effectively serving its own purported policy goals of protecting officials from damages liability and reducing litigation costs,” said a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case by seven “scholars of the law of qualified immunity.”
The case began in 2014 when the 4-year-old identified in court papers as I.B. was attending a preschool Head Start program at Oak Creek Elementary School, part of Harrison School District No. 2 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
April Woodard, a caseworker for the El Paso County Department of Human Services, went to the school to investigate a report that I.B. had bumps and bruises visible on her body. Court papers say Woodard received permission from her supervisor to inspect the child’s buttocks, stomach, and back for marks and bruises.
In the school nurse’s office, Woodard undressed I.B. without asking permission, court papers say, and took photographs of unclothed areas of the child’s body with her cellphone.
Woodard also visited I.B.'s mother, identified as Jane Doe, but did not reveal the strip search of her daughter, the court papers say. The mother learned later from her daughter that the caseworker had undressed the child and taken pictures. The abuse investigation was closed in short order as unfounded.
I.B. and her mother sued Woodard and other officials of the county agency, as well as the agency itself, with their chief claim being that the strip-search violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches.
A federal district court granted the individual defendants’ motion to dismiss the suit on qualified-immunity grounds. A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, ruled 2-1 on Jan. 3 to affirm the district court.
The majority said there was a split among other federal circuits on whether a warrant was required for a search in these circumstances. That split alone was enough to suggest there was no clearly established law to guide officials on that question. The panel did not decide that question itself.
The 10th Circuit majority went on to distinguish the case from the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Safford Unified School District No. 1 v. Redding, which held that a school’s search of a student’s underwear for drugs violated the Fourth Amendment.
“The student searched in Safford was suspected of harming others through drug distribution,” the 10th Circuit majority said in the I.B. opinion. “The child in this case was suspected of suffering abuse from a third party.”
The Safford decision did not serve to “clearly establish that Ms. Woodard’s search of I.B. was not reasonably related in scope to the circumstances—suspected child abuse,” the majority said.
The dissenting member of the 10th Circuit panel said it made no difference that the Safford decision involved a search for medications rather than abuse, because a child-abuse investigation “does not relieve a social worker of her obligation to justify the search of a child’s intimate areas with ‘facts,’ not ‘general possibilities.’”
In their appeal to the Supreme Court, the lawyers for I.B. and her mother urged the justices to to accept the case for any of the three questions they presented: whether a warrant was required for a search of a child for signs of abuse; whether the strip-search at school, even without a warrant, violated clearly established law under Safford; and whether the entire doctrine of qualified-immunity should be re-examined.
The three questions “present the ideal vehicle to address not only the important recurring question of what standards apply when government officials strip search children, but also to reconsider the court’s qualified-immunity doctrine in light of the significant concerns raised by members of this court, lower courts, and commentators from across the ideological spectrum,” says the appeal.
The appeal had the support of friend-of-the-court briefs signed by a wide range of groups, including not only the scholars who have raised questions about qualified immunity but such groups as the Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Cato Institute, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Home School Legal Defense Association.
Lawyers for Woodard and other defendants filed a brief urging the justices not to take up the case. Among other reasons, the brief says that I.B. no longer lives in Colorado, which could present the same procedural issue that frustrated the Supreme Court when it took up a similar case involving a social worker’s warrantless interview of a student at school about possible abuse at home.
In that 2011 decision, Camreta v. Greene, the justices held that the case was moot, but it granted a request by two officials to vacate an appeals court decision that their conduct had violated the Fourth Amendment.
The appeal by I.B. and her mother offers “no compelling reason to unravel more than half a century of qualified immunity jurisprudence woven into American law,” says the response from the Colorado caseworker and other officials.
The justices denied review without comment on May 20 after the first time they considered the case at their private conference.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.