Supremes Say Strip Search of Student Uncalled For

Evelyn Pringle June 30, 2009

The constitutional rights of 13-year-old Savana Redding were violated when school officials in Arizona conducted a strip-search based on a suspicion that she might be hiding drugs in her underwear, the Supreme Court ruled on June 25, 2009, in an 8 to 1 decision.

The suspect drugs that led to the search in this case were “prescription-strength ibuprofen and over-the-counter naproxen, common pain relievers equivalent to two Advil, or one Aleve,” the court noted in the opinion.

The search failed to uncover any pills.

“The issue here is whether a 13-year-old student’s Fourth Amendment right was violated when she was subjected to a search of her bra and underpants by school officials acting on reasonable suspicion that she had brought forbidden prescription and over-the-counter drugs to school,” the opinion states.

“Because there were no reasons to suspect the drugs presented a danger or were concealed in her underwear, we hold that the search did violate the Constitution,” the court wrote.

“Savana’s subjective expectation of privacy against such a search is inherent in her account of it as embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating,” the court said. “The reasonableness of her expectation (required by the Fourth Amendment standard) is indicated by the consistent experiences of other young people similarly searched, whose adolescent vulnerability intensifies the patent intrusiveness of the exposure.”

“Changing for gym is getting ready for play; exposing for a search is responding to an accusation reserved for suspected wrongdoers and fairly understood as so degrading
that a number of communities have decided that strip searches in schools are never reasonable and have banned them no matter what the facts may be,” the court pointed out.

“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,” the court said. “We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.”

As the lone voter against the ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote: “Redding would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments,” in his dissenting opinion.

“Nor will she be the last after today’s decision, which announces the safest place to secrete contraband in school,” he said

Apparently to substantiate that Savana “would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments,” Thomas cited five stories from the media involving drug busts where persons hid drugs in their underwear, none of which were at a school, or concerned minors. And, the drugs identified in the media reports were Oxycontin, Hydrocodone, and Ecstasy.

The ruling came in a case titled, Safford Unified School District v Redding, and the American Civil Liberties Union represented the plaintiff, April Redding, Savana’s mother.

“Neither the Constitution nor common sense permits school officials to treat a strip search the same as a locker or backpack search,” said Steven Shapiro, the ACLU’s national Legal Director, in a June 25, 2009 statement. “Today’s ruling eliminates any confusion that school officials may have had about this seemingly obvious point.”

The ACLU and ACLU of Arizona were joined in the case by Bruce Macdonald, with the law firm McNamara, Goldsmith, Jackson & Macdonald, and Andrew Petersen, with the firm Humphrey & Petersen.

Adolescent health experts and privacy rights advocates also filed amicus briefs in support of Redding, including the National Education Association, National Association of Social Workers (NASW), CATO Institute, Rutherford Institute, Goldwater Institute and Urban Justice Center, and others.

The Supreme Court decision is available online at:

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