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Supreme Court rules school strip search violates Fourth Amendment

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] in Safford United School District #1 v. Redding [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a strip search of a school student violated her Fourth Amendment rights but that school officials who conducted the search are protected from liability via qualified immunity. New Jersey v. T.L.O. [opinion text] sets forth that school searches are permissible "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." Under T.L.O., school officials can search students with reasonable suspicion if there is a "moderate chance of finding evidence of wrongdoing." The Court found that, under this precedent, the intrusiveness of the strip search cannot be seen as justifiably related to the circumstances but that lower court rulings were varied enough to cast doubt upon the clarity of the right. Finding reasonable suspicion to search the girl's backpack and outer clothing, the Court ruled that such suspicion did not exist to the extent of requiring her to strip and pull out her underwear. Although the Court held that the officials have qualified immunity from the suit because "clearly established law [did] not show that the search violated the Fourth Amendment," they remanded the case to determine the school district's liability. Justice David Souter, writing for the majority, discussed the qualified immunity issue:

We think these differences of opinion from our own are substantial enough to require immunity for the school officials in this case. We would not suggest that entitlement to qualified immunity is the guaranteed product of disuniform views of the law in the other federal, or state, courts, and the fact that a single judge, or even a group of judges, disagrees about the contours of a right does not automatically render the law unclear if we have been clear. That said, however, the cases viewing school strip searches differently from the way we see them are numerous enough, with well-reasoned majority and dissenting opinions, to counsel doubt that we were sufficiently clear in the prior statement of law. We conclude that qualified immunity is warranted.

Souter's opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, and Samuel Alito and in part by Justices Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, and Clarence Thomas. Stevens filed a separate opinion along with Ginsburg in which he disagreed with the ruling on qualified immunity but concurred in the Fourth Amendment ruling. Ginsburg filed a separate partial concurrence and dissent as well. Thomas also filed a separate opinion, concurring with the majority's grant of qualified immunity but dissenting with their Fourth Amendment ruling.

The case arose out of school officials who strip searched a 13-year old girl after alleging that she possessed prescription strength ibuprofen pills and knives. The officials searched her belongings and brought her to the school nurse's office where she was instructed to remove her clothing, including instructions to expose her breasts and pelvic area "to some degree" by pulling out her bra and underpants. The Court partially affirmed a May 2008 decision [opinion, PDF] by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which found that the student's Fourth Amendment rights were violated. At the oral argument session, the student's counsel argued to the Court [oral arguments transcript, PDF] that the search was unconstitutional because "there was no suspicion that these objects were going to be found inside Savana's undergarments." The school district, and the US as amicus curiae, argued that the officials had reasonable suspicion that the girl possessed contraband which posed a health and safety risk, allowing a search in any place where the contraband could be reasonably hidden.

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