The Supreme Court ruled today that Arizona public school officials violated the constitutional rights of a teenage girl when they searched her for prescription-strength ibuprofen.
"The issue here is whether a 13-year-old student’s Fourth Amendment right was violated when she was subjected to a search of her bra and underpants by school officials acting on reasonable suspicion that she had brought forbidden prescription and over-the-counter drugs to school," Justice David Souter wrote for the 8-1 majority in Safford Unified School District v. Redding. "Because there were no reasons to suspect the drugs presented a danger or were concealed in her underwear, we hold that the search did violate the Constitution …." The justices, however, overturned a federal appeals court decision that found the school official who performed the search could be held personally liable.
Here’s the background, from The Blog of the Legal Times:
The case involved Savana Redding, then 13, who attended a public school with a zero tolerance policy toward possession of all drugs. Acting on reports that the girl had prescription-strength ibuprofen pills, an assistant principal ordered the search to be conducted by the school nurse. She was told to strip to her underwear and pull out her bra and underpants to show that she was not hiding individual pills. None were found. Her mother sued the school district claiming a Fourth Amendment violation, and last year an en banc ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit found that the search was unconstitutional and the assistant principal was not immune from liability.
I wrote recently about "qualified immunity" in the California Proposition 8 lawsuit, the doctrine which establishes that government agents are not liable for constitutional violations unless the right they allegedly violated was "clearly established" at the time it was allegedly violated. The Supreme Court held today that student’s right not to be strip-searched without cause was not previously clearly established, but is now clearly established.
Jonathan Turley highlights Justice Souter writing for the Court (in what is likely his last opinion), showing that he truly understood the core privacy issues:
Savana’s subjective expectation of privacy against such a search is inherent in her account of it as embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating. The reasonableness of her expectation (required by the Fourth Amendment standard) is indicated by the consistent experiences of other young people similarly searched, whose adolescent vulnerability intensifies the patent intrusiveness of the exposure. … The common reaction of these adolescents simply registers the obviously different meaning of a search exposing the body from the experience of nakedness or near undress in other school circumstances.
Changing for gym is getting ready for play; exposing for a search is responding to an accusation reserved for suspected wrongdoers and fairly understood as so degrading that a number of communities have decided that strip searches in schools are never reasonable and have banned them no matter what the facts may be …
SCOTUSBlog’s quick update (I’m sure they’ll write more later) takes issue with the vague nature of the new rule:
The ruling in Safford United School District v. Redding (08-479) made clear that, while the Court seriously frowns on strip searches of students, those have not been forbidden totally; it depends, in other words.
The other constitutional rule — searches of public school students’ backpacks, notebooks, other belongings, outer clothing, and pockets are generally allowed if they are based on “reasonable suspicion” — remains as it has for a quarter-century, but with a small amount of refinement, the exact scope of which is not quite clear.
We’re guaranteed to see more such Fourth Amendment school lawsuits in the future, particularly in light of the removal of qualified immunity for future defendants. Hopefully, we’ll also see better behavior by school administrators.