Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Constitutionality of Strip Searches in Schools to be Tested

The New York Times reports that the Supreme Court will hear arguments in what guarantees to be a watershed Fourth Amendment case, as it considers the constitutionality of a strip search conducted by school officials. I, for one, am eagerly awaiting the Court’s decision. One reason for my anticipation is that the conduct of these school officials strikes a nerve. How adults, supposedly working in an effort to improve the future of adolescents, can subject a thirteen year girl to such an astonishingly intrusive, embarrassing, and life altering ordeal is truly beyond my comprehension. Another reason for my close attention to this case is that it does present an intriguing legal question. The Court has yet to specifically limit how far searches conducted by school officials, and based merely on reasonable suspicion, may extend.

Savana Redding, of Safford, AZ, was only in eighth grade when she was subjected to the strip search at issue. A fellow student had been found with prescription strength ibuprofen and had informed officials that the pills came from Redding. Armed with this reasonable suspicion, the school’s assistant principal ordered two female school officials to strip search Redding, a thirteen-year-old honors student with no disciplinary record. While abuse of prescription medication, as well as over-the-counter drugs, is undoubtedly a serious problem amongst today’s youth, it should not permit school officials to resort to unreasonable searches in violation of a student’s Fourth Amendment rights. The question is, then, whether this search was “reasonable.”

The last time the Court heard a case even remotely similar to the circumstances at hand was in 1985 when it decided New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985), a case upholding a search of a student’s purse for cigarettes. The Court explained that schools have a special need in maintaining order and discipline, and thus, to determine the reasonableness of a search, the school’s interest in such order and discipline must be balanced against the student’s interest in privacy (i.e. remaining free from searches). See id. at 349. But may a more intrusive search, like the strip search thrust upon an innocent thirteen year old, be justified by mere reasonable suspicion? The student’s interest in privacy would be greater than that of the student in T.L.O., but would it be so great as to tip the reasonableness scale in favor of a Fourth Amendment violation?

The Seventh Circuit held in 1993 that the strip search of a student whom school officials had reasonable suspicion to believe was “crotching” drugs was within the parameters of the Fourth Amendment. See Cornfield v. Consolidated High School Dist. No. 230, 991 F.2d 1316 (7th Cir. 1993). Although the Cornfield court recognized that some searches conducted by school officials may be so intrusive as to require probable cause, it ultimately held that the strip search did not rise to such a level. Id. at 1327.

It will be interesting to hear the Court’s reasoning in this upcoming case, no matter whether it holds in Savana Redding’s favor or not. In my opinion, the Court should hold the strip search to be unconstitutional. Although clearly biased (see my rant above), I do honestly believe that the law mandates such a holding. The T.L.O. opinion requires that the scope of the search be permissible under the circumstances. The aforementioned Seventh Circuit opinion regarding the student accused of "crotching" drugs focused on this reasonableness of a search’s scope and ultimately held that the suspected location of the drugs necessitated such an intrusive search. But is a strip search reasonable anytime reasonable suspicion exists that a student possesses drugs? The Ninth Circuit thought the search was excessively intrusive. See Redding v. Safford Unified School Dist., 504 F.3d 828 (9th Cir. 2007). Will the Supreme Court?


  1. What would be the alternative? I mean, what if a student is hiding a gun or something?

  2. Here's an alternative: lock the student in the principal's office like you would for a typical detention and wait for his/her parent to show up. If they fail to show up before school is out, detain them until a responsible adult shows up. If that doesn't work, keep giving the kid in-school suspensions until they turn over the item and/or evidence is sufficient to show that it was all a misunderstanding.

    If it was a gun... well, I think most kids would have a problem hiding/"crotching" a gun in their bodies, so it becomes a "mute point" as Lou Piniella would say.

    The issue is only how far can schools go in strip-searching students? I would rule that a school is per se barred from such a search as there are NUMEROUS, less intrusive alternatives (like my detention/suspension example above).

  3. What, in the way of reasonableness, would have to change in order to do a strip search? If I remember correctly the Court suggested in Florida v. J.L. that the more dangerous the crime, the less in the like of reasonableness needed for the search.

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