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.