Thursday, June 25, 2009

Supreme Court says: Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone

A strip search of a high school student based on a tenuous tip that she possessed a legal painkiller -- forbidden under school rules -- violated the constitutional rights of that student and is unjustified under law. However, the school officials who ordered and conducted the search cannot be held legally liable for their actions. That's the decision of the United States Supreme Court in a much-anticipated decision (PDF) that further defines the Fourth Amendment protections available to public school students, and stands as a victory for Savana Redding, the student who waged a long battle after being humiliated by officials in Safford, Arizona.

In 2003, at the time of the search in question, Savana Redding was a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Safford Middle School in the small town of Safford, Arizona. School officials got a tenuous tip that Savana had given a friend some ibuprofen -- the stuff in Advil and Motrin. That was against school rules, so the girl was detained by Assistant Principal Kerry Wilson. She was subjected to a strip search by two female school employees. The search turned up nothing.

But the Redding family wasn't done. They fought the search through the courts, finally winning at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (PDF) which ruled "A reasonable school official, seeking to protect the students in his charge, does not subject a thirteen-year-old girl to a traumatic search to 'protect' her from the danger of Advil."

Today's Supreme Court decision, written by retiring Justice David Souter, and sparking notable dissent to its Fourth Amendment holdings only from Justice Clarence Thomas, says in part:

[T]he content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion. Wilson knew beforehand that the pills were prescription-strength ibuprofen and over-the-counter naproxen, common pain relievers equivalent to two Advil, or one Aleve. He must have been aware of the nature and limited threat of the specific drugs he was searching for, and while just about anything can be taken in quantities that will do real harm, Wilson had no reason to suspect that large amounts of the drugs were being passed around, or that individual students were receiving great numbers of pills.

The court goes on to say:

In sum, what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to thestudents from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear. We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.

But while an intrusive search in search of a vague threat based on tentative suspicions fails to meet constitutional muster, the officials in this specific case can't be held liable for their transgressions. That's because of legal uncertainty over the extent of school officials' liability for constitutional missteps, providing officials, up until now, anyway, with conflicting guidance about just how far they can go. Because of that gray area, says the court, Wilson and company are entitled to qualified immunity for their actions.

That leaves Savana Redding with no clear path to seek redress for her abuse by school officials -- other, that is, than the knowledge that such searches are clearly off-limits in the future. Savana's fight has strengthened legal protections for students following in her footsteps.

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Anonymous The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit said...

Such searches are clearly off limits?

So...what would the penalties to a school be for conducting one, then? I mean, doing things that are "off limits" normally carry some sort of penalty for the transgressor, right? :-)

June 26, 2009 7:25 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

Valid point!

As I read the decision, though, qualified immunity applied in this case because the law has been, supposedly, gray up to this point. The Redding decision SHOULD eliminate the rationale for shielding officials.

We'll see.

June 26, 2009 7:35 AM  
Anonymous Frank said...

If all else fails, 3/8-inch tungsten drill bits in the knees will work wonders for reminding those who care for our children that there are lines you do not cross.

June 26, 2009 10:37 AM  

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