June 25, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Safford Unified School District No. 1. v. Redding

On June 25, the Supreme Court decided Safford Unified School District No. 1. v. Redding, No. 08-479.

Savana Redding was a 13-year-old middle school student in the Safford Unified School District. The school's assistant principal removed Savana from class one day to search her belongings for prescription pills. Finding none, the assistant principal then instructed an administrative assistant and the school nurse to search Savana's clothes for pills. Savana ultimately was instructed to pull her bra out and to the side and shake it, and to pull out the elastic on her underpants, exposing her breasts and pelvic area to some degree. No pills were found.

Savana's mother filed suit against the school district and all three involved individuals for conducting a strip search in violation of Savana's Fourth Amendment rights. The district court entered summary judgment in favor of the individual defendants, finding there was no Fourth Amendment violation, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. Sitting en banc, however, the court of appeals reversed and held that the strip search did violate the Fourth Amendment, and that the assistant principal was not protected by qualified immunity, but the administrative assistant and school nurse were protected.

The Court affirmed that the strip search violated the Fourth Amendment, relying on its 1985 decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O. That case established that the "reasonable suspicion" standard applies to a school administrator's search of a student. The Court found that the facts of this case provided enough suspicion to justify a search of Savana's backpack and outer clothing. The strip search, however, was not justified. T.L.O. requires that the content of the suspicion match the degree of intrusion, and there was no specific suspicion of danger or of hiding pills in underwear that would support the strip search here.

The Court reversed the en banc court of appeals' holding that the assistant principal was not entitled to qualified immunity. Although T.L.O. directed school officials to limit the intrusiveness of a search, lower courts have differed in the application of that standard to searches such as the one here. The Court held that the differences of opinion regarding the law were substantial enough to warrant qualified immunity for all three individuals.

Finally, the Court remanded the case for the court of appeals to consider the liability of the school district under Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services.

Justice Souter delivered the opinion of the Court, in which the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Breyer, and Alito joined, and in which Justices Stevens and Ginsburg joined in part. Justice Stevens filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Justice Ginsburg joined. Justice Ginsburg filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.

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