U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Strip Search of Arizona Middle School Girl

In an 8-1 vote, the United States Supreme Court today held that Arizona school officials who in 2003 strip-searched a 13-year-old girl while looking for prescription medications went too far and violated her Fourth Amendment privacy right that protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

Acting on an unverified tip from another student, and without contacting the young girl’s parents, school officials in Safford, Arizona ordered 8th-grader Savana Redding to strip down to her undergarments, and then forced her to expose her breasts and pelvic areas to determine whether she was hiding any ibuprofen pills. No pills of any kind were found.

School officials defended their actions by arguing that the strip search was necessary for student safety, school order and to combat a growing drug problem. However, Redding had never been suspected of having illegal drugs, let alone drugs that posed a great danger to other students or to herself. Moreover, the officials could have confined Redding to the principal’s office until one of her parents arrived or even sent her directly home.

“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,” wrote Justice David Souter for the majority. Had the officials merely searched her backpack, locker or outside clothes, the search would likely have been found legal instead of having been found unconstitutional.

In another part of the ruling, Souter said the school officials themselves who ordered or carried out the search were entitled to immunity from liability because of uncertainty over whether the right had been clearly established at that time. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens dissented, arguing that privacy parameters had in fact been clearly determined at that time, and that the officials should be liable. Only justice Clarence Thomas disagreed that Redding’s rights had been violated.

Redding describes how she felt humiliated and violated by the explicit strip search. She said she was embarrassed, scared and on the verge of crying. As a parent myself, I was outraged when I first read about this story, and would never want my children here in California to ever have to suffer the same indignities as did Redding. I am grateful that the Court applied common sense to this case, understanding that our children are precious resources and that schools should not simply be Constitution-free zones because students are not adults. This is a win for the good guys.

More coverage is available in the NY Times and from Reuters.

For more information about California family law issues, please contactattorney Gary D. Sparks.