SCOTUS Rules Strip Search of Adolescent Unconstitutional

By Kevin Fayle on June 25, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In a decision released today, the Supreme Court seemed to acknowledge that early adolescence is an awkward time during which individuals deserve a little more protection under the Fourth Amendment from certain kinds of searches.

The Court ruled in Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1. v. Redding that a search at a school requiring a 13 year-old girl 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" was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.  The Court's opinion, authored by Justice Souter, stated that the level of suspicion that the girl had prohibited items was insufficient to justify such an intrusive search.
The search of the girl's backpack and outer clothing did not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment according to Justice Souter and the Court, however.

Justice Souter stated that the search violated the subjective and reasonable societal expectations of privacy, and pointed to the "adolescent vulnerability" of young people as supporting the reasonableness of the expectation of privacy in this instance.

The Court also based its finding on the fact that the prohibited items in question, prescription-strength Ibuprofen, did not constitute dangerous items.  Since the items weren't dangerous, Justice Souter reasoned, the administrators' general belief that students hide contraband in their underwear did not rise to the level of suspicion necessary to justify such an extreme intrusion into the girl's privacy.  As Justice Souter writes, "general background possibilities fall short; a reasonable search that extensive calls for suspicion that it will pay off."

This logic leaves the question open as to whether the court would find the search reasonable under the Fourth Amendment if the object was considered dangerous.  Justice Souter seems to leave some hints suggesting that the search might have been reasonable if dangerous narcotics were involved, and if the administrators had a specific suspicion that the student was hiding them in her underwear:

In sum, what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any 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 the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.
While the Court found that the search violated the Constitution, it also determined that the school administrators who conducted the search were entitled to qualified immunity.  Under Supreme Court precedent, school officials are "entitled to qualified immunity where clearly established law does not show that the search violated the Fourth Amendment."  Because courts have interpreted the law surrounding school searches in different ways, the Court held that the law was not "clearly established," and thus the officials were immune from the lawsuit.

The court remanded the case for a determination of whether the school district was liable, however.

See Also:
Strip Search for Ibuprofen Ruled Unconstitutional, More (WSJ Law Blog)
Analysis: Some expansion of student privacy (SCOTUSblog)
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