Advil strip violated girl's rights

Strip searching a 13-year-old girl suspected of carrying ibuprofen (the drug in Advil)  violated her privacy rights, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1. However, the majority shielded school officials from personal liability.

The officials in Safford, Ariz., would have been justified in 2003 had they limited their search to the backpack and outer clothing of Savana Redding, who was in the eighth grade at the time, the court ruled. But in searching her undergarments, they went too far and violated her Fourth Amendment privacy rights, the justices said.

Had Savana been suspected of having illegal drugs that could have posed a far greater danger to herself and other students, the strip search, too, might have been justified, the majority said, in an opinion by Justice David H. Souter.

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

No pills were found on the girl, then an eighth-grade honor student. She transferred to another school and then dropped out of high school, but is now attending college.

During oral arguments, the male justices seemed to think it was no big deal to force a girl to expose her breasts and pelvic area to a school nurse. However only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.

If a strip search is necessary — let’s say it’s heroin rather than Advil — then call the police, writes Volokh’s David Bernstein. They know how to do these things.

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  1. I am never so glad that my daughters will never darken the door of a school than when I read of stuff like this. It doesn’t have anything to do with how or why we ended up unschooling (that’s purely pedagogical), but it’s definitely in the category of “and look what OTHER b.s. and headaches and whatever else we’ll never have to deal with!”

    I mean, doesn’t it just blow your mind, the juxtaposition of “school” and “strip search”? If not, it should.

    We are so effed up.

  2. I’m glad they came to this decision.

    It seems that “zero tolerance” means that schools are no longer able to weigh “what is the worst harm” – to maybe allow a student to “get away” with having a prescription-strength version of ibuprofen, versus humiliating and embarrassing a teenaged girl to the point where she demands a school transfer.

    I’m just kind of amazed that so many of the justices thought it wasn’t a big deal. Even if their “being male” affected their thoughts, didn’t they have daughters or sisters? Couldn’t they imagine how they might feel?

    If I had been subjected to this search in high school? I would have dropped out afterward.

    And yes to what Bernstein said: if there’s a REAL justifiable reason for a search, get a couple policemen or policewomen in to do it (depending on student’s gender).

  3. There are times to stand on principle – and I guess offering the lone dissenting vote poses no danger – and there are times that doing so just makes you look like a complete idiot. Exhibit A for today is the dissenting vote from Clarence Thomas in the decision to rule an Arizona middle school’s strip search of a thirteen-year-old girl unconstitutional.

    Justice David Souter rationally argued “there was no indication of any danger to the student from the power or quantity of the drugs, no any reason to suspect [she] was carrying any pills in her underwear.” In the dissent, Thomas mindlessly argued “judges are not qualified to second-guess the best manner for maintaining quiet and order in a school environment.”

    However, judges are allowed to use common sense and rational. Maintaining “quiet”? I’ve never really thought highly of Thomas’ perspectives – this is just reason number 75 why he aligns himself with the crazier side of conservatism.

  4. Roger Sweeny says:

    michael mazenko,

    The Supreme Court wasn’t asked to decide whether this strip search was a good idea. I think most of us can agree that it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea. The Court was asked to decide whether the U.S. Constitution allows it. That is a question on which reasonable people can differ–and Clarence Thomas is no less reasonable than the other 8 Justices.

    It is so, so tempting to just assume, “the Constitution is a good thing; therefore it must not allow bad things–and since this is obviously a bad thing, it must be unconstitutional.” But that’s a lousy way of deciding constitutional cases–not least because people disagree about the relative goodness and badness of things.

  5. Roger,

    I think a judge can easily see this as “unreasonable search and seizure” – clearly unconstitutional. That was Souter’s point. And that was where Thomas fell off the apple cart.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

    One reading of the Amendment is certainly that judges get to decide in all cases what public school searches are reasonable and what aren’t. This has not traditionally been what the courts have said. Rather, they have said that administrators have a great deal of discretion to decide what is “reasonable” and what isn’t.

    Much of constitutional law is like this. For example the Fifth Amendment says that private property can only be taken for “public use” but the courts have given local governments great discretion in deciding what is a “public use.” As long as they say the right words, courts generally “defer” to the expressed judgment of the relevant governing body.

    Thomas’ point is that no matter how unreasonable the justices think the search, the school’s administration has articulated a reasonable sounding reason, and the nine should defer to that expressed judgment. Souter, on the other hand, says that while administrators have a lot of discretion, in this case, they’ve gone over the line.

    As a matter of common sense, I think you have to agree with Souter. But then I also think that common sense requires the courts to strike down a hell of a lot of eminent domain takings. Instead, they defer. Thomas is hardly off the apple cart.

  7. Valid points, Roger.

  8. It never ceases to amaze me how judges can take a simple question such as this and write page after page of pointless justification for their decisions. This is why Constitutional law is such a mess.

    Let’s examine the questions at issue:

    Did the officials have probable cause to conduct the search(reasonable suspicion)? Yes. Were the officials justified in extending the search as far as they did(could more pills have been hidden where they were searching)? Yes. Hence, the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

    See how easy that is? And it doesn’t stop the family from suing the school regarding the fact that the school shouldn’t have performed the search. As soon as the prescription drugs were discovered(which, I believe, was before the strip search) it was officially a criminal matter and should’ve been turned over to the police.

    It seems that the Constitution is just too simple for some people to grasp…

  9. Did the officials have probable cause to conduct the search(reasonable suspicion)? Yes.

    Are you really going to argue that a tip from another student and *no* other evidence that Savana Redding had any ibuprofen on her was probable cause for a strip search with no due process? Clearly, there was not probable cause for a strip search at the point the school officials had searched her backpack and her clothing and found *nothing*. The facts of the case speak to this being an open-and-shut case for the SCOTUS, but the muddling factor is the latitude granted to school officials in maintaining an orderly environment.

    If anything, the Bill of Rights should default towards the citizen, not the government. If it doesn’t, what is its purpose?

  10. [quote]Are you really going to argue that a tip from another student and *no* other evidence that Savana Redding had any ibuprofen on her was probable cause for a strip search with no due process?[/quote]
    First off, I misread the description of events. I was under the impression that the pills were in her day planner along with the knives, lighter and cigarette. Hence, my statement that it should’ve been turned over to the police after the pills were “discovered.”

    That being the case, my opinion has changed(too bad one can’t edit posts here) and the answer should be that they didn’t have probable cause. In other words, I was wrong.

    The decision was still bad, though, as they indicated that the search would’ve been acceptable if the “threat” were great enough. I disliked it less when I misunderstood it.:-(

  11. andyo –

    I too am troubled by the language in the ruling saying school officials could strip search if the threat was great enough. Maybe I’m wrong, but anything threatening enough to warrant a strip search should probably involve the cops as well.

  12. Another fact must be taken into consideration. School administrators are suppose to protect the student, student population and the school. A child goes to school hoping to be free of humiliation from other students, and expecting to be free of humiliation from faculty and administrators. The administrator should never have based their decision to execute such a humilating search on one other student’s say so. If they felt such a strong need to do the search they should of had called the parent and had them present. Souter’s decision was the right one.