Strip Search of Middle School Student Violated Fourth Amendment, 9th Circuit Rules

By Mark Walsh — July 14, 2008 3 min read
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A strip search of an 8th grader by school authorities looking for Ibuprofen pills violated the student’s rights under the Fourth Amendment, a federal appeals court has ruled.

In a significant decision in a closely watched case on students’ rights and administrators’ liability, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled 8-3 on July 11 that officials at an Arizona middle school “acted contrary to all reason and common sense as they trampled over” the privacy interests of student Savana Redding.

However, the “en banc” 11th Circuit panel split 6-5 in holding that the assistant principal who ordered the strip search was not entitled to qualified immunity from liability in the student’s lawsuit.

Redding was searched in 2003 as part of an investigation into the possession of over-the-counter medications by students at the school in violation of school rules. After receiving a report that Redding had been distributing Ibuprofen pills to fellow students, school officials searched the girl’s backpack, then asked a female administrative assistant to search Redding’s clothing. Redding had to remove her pants, lift the waist band of her underpants, and lift her shirt and pull out her bra band, according to court papers. No contraband was found.

Redding and her parents challenged the school officials’ actions as a violation of her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.

In the majority opinion in Redding v. Safford Unified School District, U.S. Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw said the strip search was “excessively intrusive,” especially considering that school officials were relying on an uncorroborated tip from another student who had been caught in possession of the pills.

Wardlaw further said that it should have been clear to the school officials under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O. that the strip search was unreasonable, and thus an assistant principal who ordered the search did not merit qualified immunity.

In T.L.O., the Supreme Court upheld the search of a student’s purse for contraband and held that school searches are justified by a “reasonable suspicion” that laws or school rules were violated. Under the ruling, schools must show that a search was reasonable at its inception and was reasonable in scope.

“The guidance provided by T.L.O. should have been clear to the school officials, who undertook the professional obligation to balance properly the order of the school with the individual liberties of the students who enter the school,” Judge Wardlaw said.

Two judges on the panel said they agreed the search was unconstitutional, but because the case law was unclear, the administrator deserved immunity.

Writing in a dissent joined by two other judges, U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Daly Hawkins said he would uphold the strip search because school officials had reason to suspect Redding possessed the Ibuprofen pills and that they were acting in good faith to avoid a potential health threat to students.

Judge Hawkins said the denial of qualified immunity to the assistant principal may have “the greatest impact on this circuit’s schools.”

“It is now clear that school officials who conduct T.L.O. searches that judges later think unreasonable will face trial and the possibility of damages, without any case law to guide them and no means of divining our views of ‘common sense and reason,’” Judge Hawkins said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which helped represent the student in the case, has this press release about Friday’s decision.

The Los Angeles Times reported on the decision here.

I blogged here about the 9th Circuit’s decision in January to rehear the case.

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