Fordham Law

Supreme Court Says Child’s Rights Violated by Strip Search

Dan Capra in The New York Times, June 25, 2009

Media Source

WASHINGTON — In a ruling of interest to educators, parents and students across the country, the Supreme Court ruled, 8 to 1, on Thursday that the strip search of a 13-year-old Arizona girl by school officials who were looking for prescription-strength drugs violated her constitutional rights.

The officials in Safford, Ariz., would have been justified in 2003 had they limited their search to the backpack and outer clothing of Savana Redding, who was in the eighth grade at the time, the court ruled. But in searching her undergarments, they went too far and violated her Fourth Amendment privacy rights, the justices said.

Had Savana been suspected of having illegal drugs that could have posed a far greater danger to herself and other students, the strip search, too, might have been justified, the majority said, in an opinion by Justice David H. Souter.

“In sum, what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear,” the court said. “We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.”

In fact, no pills were found on Savana when her underwear was examined by two school officials, both women, who were acting on a tip passed along by another student.

Thursday’s ruling sends the case back to the lower courts to assess what damages, if any, should be paid by the school district. But, by a vote of 7 to 2, the Supreme Court held that the individual officials in the case should not be held liable, because “clearly established law” at the time of the search did not show that it violated the Fourth Amendment.

The portion of the ruling exempting the officials from liability is likely to be greeted with relief by thousands of principals, teachers and other school officials who work to impart knowledge and maintain discipline in a fast-changing world, where children are growing up (or trying to) earlier than ever.

Justice Clarence Thomas was the only member of the court to conclude that the strip search of Savana Redding did not violate the Fourth Amendment. He asserted that the majority’s finding second-guesses the measures that educators take to maintain discipline “and ensure the health and safety of the students in their charge.”

The majority said it meant to cast “no ill reflection” on the assistant principal, Kerry Wilson, who ordered the search at a time when there were incidents of students using alcohol and tobacco. “Parents are known to overreact to protect their children from danger, and a school official with responsibility for safety may tend to do the same,” Justice Souter wrote.

But Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not agree, and would not have protected the officials from liability. Justice Ginsburg singled out the assistant principal, noting that he had made Savana sit on a chair outside his office for more than two hours.

“At no point did he attempt to call her parent,” Justice Ginsburg wrote. “Abuse of authority of that order should not be shielded by official immunity.”

And Justice Stevens wrote that “it does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights of some magnitude.”

The majority noted that students in a school setting are protected by something less than the “probable cause” standard that normally determines whether searches are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. “The lesser standard for school searches could as readily be described as a moderate chance of finding evidence of wrongdoing,” the court said.

But the search of Savana Redding, who Justice Stevens said was an honors student at the time, did not meet even the lower standard, the majority found. (Ms. Redding is now in college.)

Dan Capra, a Fordham Law School professor, issued a statement in which he said that the fundamental question about the ruling in Safford Unified School District v. Redding, No. 08-479, is “is whether school officials will ever actually be liable for such searches.”

“According to the court, the law on the subject was not clearly established, and so the officials had qualified immunity,” Mr. Capra said. “But every case will be an application of law to fact. Officials now know they can’t do exactly what was done in Safford. But what if there is any change of material fact in the circumstances?”