Safford Unified School District # 1 v. Redding, 129 S. Ct. 2633; 174 L. Ed. 2d. 354; 009 U.S. LEXIS 4735 (2009)

Safford Unified School District # 1 v. Redding, 129 S. Ct. 2633; 174 L. Ed. 2d. 354; 009 U.S. LEXIS 4735 (2009)

Facts—An assistant principal escorted thirteen-year-old Savana Redding from her middle school classroom to his office where he confronted her with contraband in a day planner she had lent to another student and asked whether she had been giving pills to other students. After finding no contraband in her backpack, a school nurse seeking evidence of prescription-strength but over-the-counter pain relief pills, took her to her office and had her remove her outer clothing and shake her underwear, somewhat exposing her breasts and pelvic area. The Ninth Circuit Court, sitting en banc, reversed earlier summary judgments dismissing Redding’s suit.

Questions—1) Did this warrantless search violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments? 2) Were school authorities liable for this search?

Decisions—1) Yes; 2) No.

ReasonsJ. Souter. The Fourth Amendment generally requires law enforcement officials to have probable cause, but New Jersey v. T. L. O., 469 U.S. 325 (1969), had reduced this requirement to reasonable suspicion in school settings. In this case, allegations by another student that she had gotten pills from Redding constituted reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify a search of her backpack and outer clothing. Such suspicion could not justify the more “embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating” strip search; “the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion,” especially given the nature of the pills in question and the unlikelihood that a student would be hiding painkillers in her underwear. School officials are entitled to qualified immunity when established law is unclear, and the fact that lower courts split shows such ambiguity in this case adequate to provide the immunity to school officials. Lower courts would resolve whether the school district was liable.

J. Stevens wrote an opinion agreeing that the search violated the Fourth Amendment but arguing that the conduct was so outrageous that officials should have no qualified immunity. J. Ginsburg agreed.

J. Thomas concurred in the immunity ruling but thought the Court had inappropriately second-guessed the search. Officials needed broad authority to address issues involving drug use. He thought officials had appropriately limited the search to areas capable of concealing the contraband. Schools had the right to prohibit unauthorized prescription drugs. “By deciding that it is better equipped to decide what behavior should be permitted in schools, the Court has undercut student safety and undermined the authority of school administrators and local officials.”

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