Posted On: July 7, 2009

Strip Search of Child by School Officials Found Excessively Intrusive by Supreme Court

In October of 2003, Savana Redding, a then 13-year old student at a rural Arizona middle school, was intrusively searched by school officials who suspected she was in possession of ibuprofen. Savana was called into the assistant principal’s office where she was presented with a day-planner; inside the day planner were a knife and other minor items of contraband. Savana admitted to owning the day-planner, but said she had lent it to a friend a few days prior and that the contraband found did not belong to her. The assistant principal then presented four prescription strength pills of ibuprofen and one over-the-counter pill, claiming she received a report from other students that Savana had distributed those pills to the students. The pills, which were equivalent to Advil, were nevertheless prohibited on school grounds without prior permission. Savana denied the report and agreed to allow the assistant principal to search her belongings.

Upon finding no contraband in Savana’s belongings, the assistant principal instructed Savana to go to the school nurse’s office so that her clothes could be checked. There, Savana was subject to a strip search where she was asked to strip-down to her underwear and shake-out her bra and waistband. The search produced no pills or any other contraband.

Savana’s mother then filed suit against the School District, claiming the search violated her daughter’s Fourth Amendment Constitutional rights and to due process. The District Court granted the School District’s motion for summary judgment on grounds that no Fourth Amendment violation had occurred. The ruling was upheld on appeal by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit then agreed to rehear the case en banc and reversed the prior decision, basing their ruling on a Supreme Court decision, New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985). New Jersey v. T.L.O. lays out the test for Fourth Amendment test for searches of students by school officials.

On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States elected to hear the case from the Ninth Circuit. The Supreme Court held that the school officials did have reasonable suspicion to search Savana’s belongings and outer-clothing; however because the suspected facts pointing to Savana did not indicate any danger to other students (the pills were mere ibuprofen) and did not indicate the pills would be in Savana’s underwear, the strip search was excessively intrusive. Nevertheless, the Court held that the individual school officials involved were immune from civil liability. The Court found that although the search did in fact violate Savana’s Fourth Amendment rights, the officials retained their qualified immunity because they were not acting as independent decision-makers. The Court remanded the case on the issue of liability of the School District, maintaining the possibility for Savana to recover civilly.

Search and Seizure

The Fourth Amendment of the United States’ Constitution affords individual rights pertaining to police search and seizure, as well as searches performed by other figures of authority. Searches performed by school officials generally require a reasonable suspicion, unlike police searches which generally require probable cause. Nevertheless, the search must be reasonable and not excessively intrusive. Very often, an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney will have evidence found inadmissible due to an illegal police search or violation of Constitutional rights.

If you have been charged with a crime and believe your rights may have been violated, please contact the Law Offices of Marc Neff for a confidential consultation.