Friday, June 26, 2009

Teen Strip-Search Ruled Unconstitutional, But School Officials Are Off the Hook

At least the U.S. Supreme Court got the main part of the case right -- they found it was outrageous and unreasonable for school officials to search 13 year old Savanna Redding for Ibuprofen. The court though gave qualified immunity to the school officials saying it wasn't constitutionally settled before now such that they should have known it was a violation.

Here's a summary of the case from the Willamette Law School Supreme Court news:

Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding
Decided: 06/25/09
No. 08-479
Full Text:

FOURTH AMENDMENT (The Fourth Amendment prohibits a search of a student by school officials that extends beyond the outer clothing and belongings when the degree of suspicion of further contraband is low, and when the contraband is of limited danger)

The United States Supreme Court held 8-1 (opinion by Souter) that a search of a student’s underwear is a violation of the Fourth Amendment when suspicion of further contraband is low and the contraband is of limited danger because the measures adopted must be reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.”

The Court also held 7-2 that the school officials were still protected from liability by qualified immunity, because the search was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment by clearly established prior case law.

The student was suspected of distributing common pain relievers some of which were prescription strength. The school officials found pain relievers in the student’s belongings. The school officials had the student strip down to her underwear and then extend out the elastic of her bra and waistband of her underwear and attempt to shake out any other drugs she might have been hiding. The student’s mother filed suit, alleging the strip search violated the student’s Fourth Amendment rights. Claiming qualified immunity, the school officials moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion, finding that there was no Fourth Amendment violation, and the federal appellate court reversed.

The United States Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the search of the student’s underwear violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court reasoned that individual and societal expectations of personal privacy support the notion that a search extending beyond the outer clothing is a distinct search from the previous search. The court held that this level of search requires a further element of justification on the part of a school official. The suspicion must match the degree of the intrusion. In this case the threat was possession of common pain relievers which are a limited threat in their nature and which were not suspected of being passed around in large quantities. Further, the school official had no specific reason to suspect that there were more drugs hidden in the student’s underwear. [Summarized by Jim LeBlanc]

And here's a link to the AlterNet story about the decision:

SCOTUS: Teen Strip-Search Ruled Unconstitutional, But School Officials Are Off the Hook | Rights and Liberties | AlterNet