Law & Courts

Supreme Court Limits Strip-Searches of Students

June 25, 2009 4 min read
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Public school officials violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a 13-year-old girl who was strip-searched for suspected drug possession, but are entitled to qualified immunity from legal action, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today.

The ruling on strip-searches of students clarifies the standard for when such searches are permissible, but it does not prohibit them.

“Here, the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion,” wrote Justice David H. Souter in an opinion joined by five other justices.

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All the members of the court except Justice Clarence Thomas agreed that the strip-search violated the student’s Fourth Amendment protections.

Separately, however, Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed opinions that, while agreeing on the Fourth Amendment question, challenged the decision to grant protection from legal liability to the school official who ordered it.

The case has attracted national media attention, as well as friend-of-the court briefs from national education groups, civil liberties advocates, and the Obama administration. The final ruling is largely in keeping with the stance put forward by lawyers for the federal government.

Francisco Negron, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va., which filed a friend-of-the court brief in support of Arizona’s Safford school district, praised the decision on ensuring qualified immunity for school officials.

“The court recognized that the law in this area was unsettled,” he said. “And there seems to be a recognition in the court’s opinion that the educators were acting in good faith.”

As to the constitutional question, Mr. Negron said: “We’re happy that the court has now clarified sort of the outer boundary of when a search is permissible.” He noted that the court’s approach seems to consider both the dangerousness of the contraband in question as well as there being reasonable suspicion that it would be discovered in a student’s undergarments.

For its part, Adam Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said he was pleased to see the court’s decision on the constitutional issue, but disappointed on the question of immunity for educators.

“Today’s ruling affirms that schools are not constitutional dead zones,” he said in a press release. “While we are disappointed with the court’s conclusion that the law was not clear before today and therefore school officials were not found liable, at least other students will not have to go through what [student] Savana [Redding] experienced.”

Search for Drugs

At issue in Safford Unified School District v. Redding (Case No. 08-479) was the search of 8th grader Savana Redding by school personnel at an Arizona middle school. The search took place amid suspicion that Ms. Redding, an honors student, possessed prescription-strength ibuprofen tablets, a violation of the school’s anti-drug policy. Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory drug used to relieve pain and fever. (“School Strip-Search Case Heads to Supreme Court,” April 14, 2009.)

No such pills were found on Ms. Redding, who, at school officials’ request, stripped down to her undergarments in the school nurse’s office. She pulled away her underpants and bra from her body and shook them as two female personnel, including the nurse, looked on.

“Because the suspected facts pointing to Savanna did not indicate that the drugs presented a danger to students or were concealed in her underwear, [the school’s assistant principal] did not have sufficient suspicion to warrant extending the search to the point of making Savana pull out her underwear,” Justice Souter wrote for the majority.

Justice Souter also wrote that the three school officials involved in the search are protected from liability by qualified immunity because “clearly established law did not show that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.”

He added: “The intrusiveness of the strip-search here cannot ... be seen as justifiably related to the circumstances, but lower court cases viewing school strip-searches differently are numerous enough, with well-reasoned majority and dissenting opinions, to counsel doubt about the clarity with which the right was previously stated.”

But Justice John Paul Stevens disputed that reasoning in his opinion.

"[T]he clarity of a well-established right should not depend on whether jurists have misread our precedents,” he said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled last July that school officials had violated Ms. Redding’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The appeals court said they had acted “contrary to all reason and common sense.”

A panel of the appeals court ruled 8-3 on the constitutional issue. Also, by a vote of 6-5, the appeals court held that the assistant principal who had ordered the strip-search was not entitled to “qualified immunity” from liability in the lawsuit.

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