Supreme Court Rules School Strip Search Illegal

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 today that the strip search of a 13-year-old Arizona girl suspected of having prescription-strength pain relievers was a violation of her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.

In the mixed decision, in which eight of the justices agreed that the search was illegal but differed on liability of school personnel, Justice David Souter wrote for the majority that "Here, the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion."

"Nondangerous school contraband does not raise the specter of stakes in intimate places," the court held. But the court specifically did not address whether the Arizona school district's "zero tolerance" rule was legal.

"There is no need here either to explain the imperative of keeping drugs out of schools, or to explain the reasons for the school's rule banning all drugs, no matter how benign, without advance permission," Souter wrote in a footnote in the  Safford United School District v. Redding opinion. "...There is no basis to claim that the search was unreasonable owing to some defect or shortcoming of the rules it was aimed at enforcing."

The court also held that the principal who ordered the strip search and the administrative assistant and school nurse who carried it out were protected by qualified immunity.  But it remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to determine whether the Safford Unified School District is liable, a matter that court did not consider earlier.

The case involved the search of Savana Redding, a 13-year-old student at Safford Middle School, several days after another student told school officials that Savana had been handing out extra-strength Ibuprofen pills to other students.  She consented to the principal searching her belongings. When nothing was found in her backpack, the principal directed a female administrative assistant and a school nurse to search further.

In the nurse's office, Savana was made to take off her outer clothes and then to pull out her bra and to pull out the elastic of her panties.  Nothing was found.

"Today's ruling is an important victory for the constitutional rights and well-being of our nation's school children," Savana's attorney, ACLU lawyer Adam Wolf said.

Matthew Wright, the school board's lead attorney, could not be reached for comment.

Six justices - Souter, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Aliot and Chief Justice John Roberts - concurred in the majority opinion.  Justices John Paul Stephens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed that the search was illegal but wrote that the principal should not be immune from liability.

"Any reasonable search for the pills would have ended when inspection of [Savanna] Redding's backpack and jacket pockets yielded nothing." Ginsburg wrote in a separate dissent.  She said the principal's treatment of Redding "was abusive and it was not reasonable for him to believe that the law permitted it."

Justice Clarence Thomas, though agreeing that the school officials are protected by qualified immunity, wrote that the search did not violate Redding's constitutional rights, and seemed to lecture the court on what he saw as it making unreasonable demands on the school personnel.

"The reasonable suspicion that Redding possessed the pills for distribution purposes did not dissipate simply because the search of her backpack turned up nothing.  It was eminently reasonable to conclude that the backpack was empty because Redding was secreting the pills in a place she thought no one would look," Thomas wrote.

He wrote that the court's decision "announces the safest place to secrete contraband in school."

"By prohibiting unauthorized prescription drugs on school grounds - and conducting a search to ensure students abide by that prohibition - the school rule was consistent with a routine provision of the state criminal code," Thomas wrote. "It hardly seems unreasonable for school officials to enforce a rule that, in effect, proscribes conduct that amounts to a crime."

Intern Megan A. Conlan contributed to this report.