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Summary of Safford v. Redding (2009) - Supreme Court School Strip Search Case

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The Big Question:

Can school officials legally strip-search students against their will without any specific reason to do so?

Relevant Constitutional Text:

Background of the Case:

In October 2003, a 13-year-old girl at an Arizona school district was suspected of possessing ibuprofen (the active ingredient in Advil) and over-the-counter naproxen, mild pain relievers often used to treat menstrual cramps, based on an unsubstantiated suspicion that she carried the medication in violation of school policy (which prohibits the possession of all medication without prior permission from the school). School officials searched the girl's belongings, then strip-searched her, ostensibly to make sure that she was not hiding the medication in her underwear.

Plaintiff's Claim:

That the search was unreasonable and violated the student's Fourth Amendment right to security in her person.

Defendant's Claim:

That the search constituted reasonable and neutral enforcement of school policy.

The Majority Ruling:

In an 8-1 ruling written by Justice David Souter, the Court held that the search violated the student's Fourth Amendment rights. "Because there were no reasons to suspect the drugs presented a danger or were concealed in her underwear," Justice Souter writes, "we hold that the search did violate the Constitution..."

The Issue of Liability:

The 8-1 majority was split regarding the issue of whether the school could be sued for damages; six of the justices (Souter, Alito, Breyer, Kennedy, Roberts, and Scalia) held that the school district should be granted qualified retroactive immunity due to previous ambiguities regarding the boundaries of students' Fourth Amendment rights ("there is reason," Justice Souter writes, "to question the clarity with which [this] right was established"), but Ginsburg and Stevens held that the school can be held financially liable for the search.

Justice Thomas' Dissent:

In a lone dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas made the novel argument that because "parents delegate to teachers their authority to discipline and maintain order," and parents are not restricted by the Fourth Amendment, teachers and other school officials are likewise not restricted by the Fourth Amendment and have "almost complete discretion to establish and enforce the rules they [believe] necessary to maintain control over their classrooms."

Tom's Take:

The only way the Court could have sided with the district would have been by arguing, as Justice Thomas essentially did, that students have no Fourth Amendment rights to protect--that public school students have fewer rights than prisoners. Fortunately, most of the Court rejected this line of reasoning. Unfortunately, Justice Thomas hasn't retired yet.
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