On The Front Lines


U.S. Supreme Court Rules Student Strip Search Unconstitutional


June 25, 2009

WASHINGTON, DC --In a closely-watched case involving student privacy, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Arizona school officials violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a 13-year-old student when they strip-searched her in a vain attempt to find over-the-counter pain relief pills. Retiring Justice David Souter, writing for an eight-justice majority, made clear that a reasonable school search "requires the support of reasonable suspicion of danger or of resort to underwear for hiding evidence of wrongdoing before a search can reasonably make the quantum leap from outer clothes and backpacks to exposure of intimate parts."

The Rutherford Institute, in conjunction with the Cato Institute and the Goldwater Institute's Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, filed a friend of the court brief in Safford Unif. Sch. Dist. # 1 v. Redding urging the court to find the strip search unconstitutional (a copy of the brief is available here). However, the Supreme Court also ruled that the individual school officials who conducted the search were not liable because the law on the subject of student strip searches was not clearly established.

"The Court's decision sends a schizophrenic message to school officials," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "Although the Court ruled that such an invasive strip search violates the Fourth Amendment, they also ruled there is no penalty for doing so."

In October 2003, Savana Redding, an eighth-grade honor roll student at Safford Middle School in Safford, Arizona, was accused of possessing prescription-strength ibuprofen. Although Savana, who had no disciplinary record, denied the charge and a search of her belongings and outer clothing disclosed no evidence of wrongdoing, school officials subjected her to what a federal appeals judge described as a humiliating and degrading strip search. After stripping down to her underwear, Savana was ordered to pull out her bra and move it from side to side and open her legs and pull out her underwear so that her breasts and genital area could be examined by two female school employees. No pills were found. Savana did not return to school for months after the search and eventually transferred to another school.

In response to a lawsuit filed by Savana's mother, a district court ruled that the strip search did not violate Savana's Fourth Amendment rights. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court's ruling, stating, "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. More than that, it is a violation of any known principle of human dignity."

Pointing out that strip searches are the most severe invasions of privacy that the government can legally commit, Rutherford Institute attorneys argued in their brief that school officials must have particularly strong and targeted evidence to support the decision to require a student to disrobe and expose his or her private areas and urged the justices to provide school officials with guidance that will protect the security of students from severe intrusions into their personal privacy.