Robalini's Note: In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the strip search of a 13-year-old girl by Arizona school officials violated the Fourth Amendment. In his solitary dissent, Clarence Thomas wrote: "If a guy can't check out a teenage bitch naked, then what's the point of becoming a principal in the first place?"
Strip search of teen was unconstitutional, Supreme Court rules
The high court says the search of a 13-year-old girl at an Arizona middle school was unjustified. But justices reject the suit against school employees, saying the law had not been clear.
By David G. Savage
June 25, 2009
Reporting from Washington -- The strip search of a 13-year-old school girl who was suspected of hiding pain-relief pills was unreasonable and unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled today, setting new legal limits on how far school officials may go to inspect for drugs on campus.
In an 8-1 decision, the high court called a strip search at school "categorically distinct" from other inspections for drugs and so degrading that it usually cannot be justified.
The justices said a search of a student's backpack or outer clothing was reasonable whenever a school employee had sufficient suspicion that the student was hiding something illegal, such as drugs or a weapon.
But requiring a student to remove her clothes required a "quantum leap" of suspicion and wrongdoing to be justified, the court said.
Its ruling was a partial victory for Savana Redding and her mother, April, who sued the vice principal of her Arizona middle school over a strip search in 2003. The vice principal was told by another girl that Savana had brought extra-strength ibuprofen pills to school and planned to give them to other students.
She was questioned and denied having the pills. Her backpack was searched as well. When no pills were found, the vice principal sent her to a nurse's office, where she was ordered to remove her clothes.
No pills were found, but school officials did not apologize to the girl or her mother. The two sued the employees and the Safford Unified School District, contending the strip search violated Savana's rights under the 4th Amendment, which forbids "unreasonable searches" by the government.
In today's ruling, the justices agreed the search itself was unconstitutional, but they also rejected the suit against the school employees because the law had not been clear.
The decision sets a standard for all future school searches, but it may result in no compensation for Savana and her mother. The court sent the case back to Arizona to consider whether the school district itself may face some liability.
In Safford vs. Redding, Justice David H. Souter said the vice principal had reasonable grounds for questioning the students about drugs, but he went way too far.
"In sum, what was missing," Souter said, "was an indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear. We think that combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable," he wrote.
Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented. He complained the ruling "grants judges sweeping authority to second guess the measures that these officials take to maintain discipline in their schools and ensure the health and safety of the students in their charge."
Meanwhile, Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have gone further and upheld a liability ruling against the school officials in this case. "I have long believed that it does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights of some magnitude," Stevens wrote.