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Supreme Court: School strip search unconstitutional

WASHINGTON – A strip search of a student by school officials based on a tip that she carried prescription pills violated her constitutional rights, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

But, the court added, because it is unclear whether those rights were clearly established at the time, the school officials who ordered the search is entitled to qualified immunity.

The case involved a 13-year-old honors student at a school that has a strict policy banning all drugs, including prescription and over-the-counter medication.

After a classmate with past disciplinary issues told school officials that the student gave her prescription-strength ibuprofen, the officials searched the student’s bags and pockets but no drugs were found.

An assistant principal then ordered the student to the nurse’s office, where two female school officials had her to disrobe down to her underwear. She was then asked to shake out her underwear, which caused the student’s breasts and pubic area to be exposed. Again, no drugs were found.

The student sued the school district, claiming that her Fourth Amendment rights were violated. The trial court granted summary judgment for the school district on qualified immunity grounds.

The 9th Circuit initially affirmed the ruling, but upon rehearing en banc it reversed, allowing the student’s constitutional claim to proceed.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the case, then affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded the case.

Writing for the six-justice majority, Justice David Souter wrote that because school officials knew the suspected drugs were common pain relievers – “equivalent to two Advil or one Aleve” – their suspicion did not match the degree of intrusion.

“In sum, what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to(the student) was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that (she) was carrying pills in her underwear,” Souter wrote. “We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.”

But, because federal and state courts differ so widely as to whether qualified immunity is available in such situations, the school officials are entitled to qualified immunity.

“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,” Souter wrote, but “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.”

Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas filed separate opinions concurring in part and dissenting in part.

U.S. Supreme Court. Safford Unified School District v. Redding, No. 08-479. June 25, 2009. Lawyers USA No. 993-910.

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