Strip searches and the law

A Supreme Court majority ruled Thursday that the 2003 in-school strip search of a 13-year-old student violated her constitutional rights against unreasonable search or seizure. As in many cases, how the justices got to this result is as important as the result itself; in this matter, a six-justice majority correctly balanced the privacy interests of the student with the need to preserve school officials' flexibility to maintain order and safety.

Savana Redding was in middle school in Arizona when a classmate told school officials that she had gotten over-the-counter naproxen, an anti-inflammatory pill, and prescription-strength ibuprofen from Savana. The school had a no-tolerance policy on drugs and banned the possession even of nonprescription pain relievers without explicit permission. Although law enforcement officials must have "probable cause" to conduct a warrantless search, school officials are required only to have "reasonable suspicion."

A vice principal searched Savana's backpack and her outer clothing — a non-invasive and appropriate search found constitutional by all of the justices. He found no drugs and then ordered Savana into a private room where she was asked to strip to her underwear in the presence of two female school officials. The second search, in which Savana was asked to pull out her bra and the waistband of her underwear to ensure she was not hiding pills, also did not turn up any drugs. Savana sued the school district and several officials over the strip search.

She prevailed before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which concluded that the search was illegal and in the process fashioned a new legal standard that could have made it much harder for school officials to justify all manner of searches. The 9th Circuit also concluded that the Arizona school officials could be held personally liable.

The Supreme Court agreed that the strip search violated the Constitution but wisely refused to embrace the 9th Circuit's logic. Instead, the justices reaffirmed their earlier analysis that a search "will be permissible in its scope when the measures adopted are 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 invasiveness of a strip search, wrote Justice David Souter for the majority, requires that school officials have "specific suspicions" that the student is hiding contraband in undergarments.

The court — with Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissenting on this point — also rightly refused to allow lawsuits against the Arizona school officials, ruling that they should be immune from being sued unless they blatantly violated "clearly established law." That charge, the majority concluded, could not be sustained in light of the fact that several federal courts had come to conflicting conclusions on the matter. In short, they ruled that students must be protected against searches that clearly violate the Constitution, but school officials should not live in fear of being hit with personal lawsuits for exercising arguably reasonable actions taken to ensure safety in the school.

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