Tuesday, May 5, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court to decide student strip search case

Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments as to whether the strip search of a thirteen year old girl by school officials violated the United States Constitution. Whatever the justices decide, the decision will likely assist school districts across the nation craft search policies in tune with the Fourth Amendment.

Savana Redding was a thirteen year old honor student with no disciplinary record, when, on October 8, 2003, an assistant principal pulled her out of math class. Another student had accused Savana of giving her ibuprofen tablets, in violation of school policies. For reference, each tablet at issue was as strong as two Advil.

Two female school employees demanded that the girl strip down to her undergarments. They then forced her to pull open her bra, open her legs, and move her panties so that they could thoroughly search her. The search yielded nothing.

Savana's mother later instituted a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court alleging a violation of her daughter's Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with her, concluding that "[i]t does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights. More than that, it is a violation of any known principle of human dignity."

The last time the Supreme Court addressed the search of an individual student on school grounds was in New Jersey v. T.L.O. There, the Court held, that school officials do not need a warrant to search the belongings of students, but they do require "reasonable suspicion," which is a lower standard than probable cause. Reasonableness was based on (1) whether the search was justified at its inception and (2) whether the search conducted reasonably related in scope to circumstances that justified it in the first place.

Thus, the question seems to be whether one student's tip that another student had given her drugs, without more, justifies an intimate search of a person's body. If it does, the question becomes whether the search of a student's undergarments and nude body to find the ibuprofen was reasonably related in scope to the anonymous tip.

Expect to have a decision in the next month that will hopefully answer these questions so that school administrators can be clear about the rules governing them and students can be clear about what can be done to them.