Justices Order New Review of 2nd Strip-Search Case

By Mark Walsh — June 30, 2009 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court has returned a student strip-search case to a lower court for reconsideration in light of the justices’ recent decision on such searches.

In one of its final housekeeping actions on Monday, the last day of its term, the court ordered a fresh look at a case in which 11 nursing students at an Ohio vocational high school sued after they were strip-searched by school officials looking for missing cash and credit cards from some students’ purses.

A federal district court denied qualified immunity to the school officials. On an intermediate appeal of that decision, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled last year that the strip-searches were unreasonable in scope and thus violated the Fourth Amendment.

The appeals court went on to hold that because the 6th Circuit had ruled in a 2005 case that strip-searches of students in a gym class by teachers looking for missing money were unreasonable, school officials in the circuit had “fair warning” that such strip-searches were unlawful. The court upheld the denial of qualified immunity for officials who carried out the strip searches of the nursing students at the Vern Riffe Career Technology Center.

The school district appealed, and the Supreme Court held on to the appeal, Pike County Joint Vocational School District v. Knisley (Case No. 08-1125), while it considered the case of a strip-search of an Arizona student by school officials looking for prescription ibuprofen.

In Safford Unified School District v. Redding, the justices ruled 8-1 on June 25 that the strip-search of student Savanna Redding violated the Fourth Amendment. The majority said such searches were justified only when school officials had “specific suspicions” that a student was hiding contraband in his or her underwear or other “intimate parts.”

The court ruled 7-2, however, that the officials involved in the search of Redding deserved qualified immunity because the case law on strip-searches was unclear.

As often happens when the justices are holding similar cases while the court decides a particular issue, they then send those cases back to the lower courts for a fresh review in light of the new Supreme Court decision.

That is what is happening here. The high court vacated the 6th Circuit court’s ruling in the Pike County vocational case, and asked it to reconsider in light of the Safford decision.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.