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

The Court held that the rights of a student strip searched by school officials were violated. But the school officials were given qualified immunity.

In an 8-1 decision this morning, the Supreme Court of the United States held that 13-year old Savana Redding's constitutional rights were violated when school officials suspecting her of hiding prescription-strength Advil and Aleve forced her to expose her breasts and pelvic area to school officials by pulling her underclothes away from her body.  However, seven of the nine Justice held that because this constitutional right was not sufficiently established as a clear violation of her rights at the time of the offense, the school officials were entitled to qualified immunity from damages for the search -- which, by the way, found nothing.

Here's the facts: middle-schoolers Savana Redding and Marissa Glines were already known as "an unusually rowdy group" at Safford Middle School -- at the school’s opening dance in August 2003, alcohol and cigarettes were found in the girls’ bathroom, and the girls were thought to be part of that perilous posse.   One of their classmates, Jordan Romero, told school officials that "certain students were bringing drugs and weapons on campus," and that he had been sick after taking some pills that "he got from a classmate," later handing Assistant Principal Wilson a white pill that he said Marissa had given him.  [Jordan also told the principal that before the dance, he had been at a party at Savana’s house where alcohol was served. The record does not reflect whether he has been invited back.]

The pill  was a 400 mg Advil, prescription-strength.  Marissa got called to the Wilson’s office, and inside her pockets were a blue pill, several white ones and a razor blade.  Inside Savana's dayplanner, which Marissa was borrowing, were several knives, several lighters, a cigarette, and a permanent marker.  The school nurse and a secretary – both women – searched Marissa's bra and underwear, finding nothing. Marissa said the blue pill came from Savana, and so into the office she was haled next.

Wilson showed Savana the four white pills – all prescription-strength Advil, and the blue pill, an Aleve (as Poison Control explained when he called), all banned under school rules without advance permission.  Savana said she didn’t know anything about them, and denied distributing them to others.  She agreed to let them search her backpack, where nothing was found.   At that point, Justice Souter explains in the part of the ruling with which everyone but Justice Thomas agreed,

Wilson instructed Romero to take Savana to the school nurse’s office to search her clothes for pills. Romero and the nurse, Peggy Schwallier, asked Savana to remove her jacket, socks, and shoes, leaving her in stretch pants and a T-shirt (both without pockets), which she was then asked to remove. Finally, Savana was told to pull her bra out and to the side and shake it, and to pull out the elastic on her underpants, thus exposing her breasts and pelvic area to some degree. No pills were found....

The exact label for this final step in the intrusion is not important, though strip search is a fair way to speak of it. [The secretary and nurse] directed Savana to remove her clothes down to her underwear, and then "pull out" her bra and the elastic band on her underpants. Although [they] stated that they did not see anything when Savana followed their instructions, we would not define strip search and its Fourth Amendment consequences in a way that would guarantee litigation about who was looking and how much was seen. The very fact of Savana’s pulling her underwear away from her body in the presence of the two officials who were able to see her necessarily exposed her breasts and pelvic area to some degree, and both subjective and reasonable societal expectations of personal privacy support the treatment of such a search as categorically distinct, requiring distinct elements of justification on the part of school authorities for going beyond a search of outer clothing and belongings.

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