The U.S. Supreme Court Holds That Strip Search of Student Violated the Fourth Amendment

AaronMidlerGUEST BLOGGER Aaron Midler

Last month, in Safford Unified School District Number 1 v. Redding, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the strip search of a female middle-schooler by school officials violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure and was therefore unconstitutional.  The dispute arose when a classmate told school officials that Savanna Redding had given her prescription-strength ibuprofen.  When questioned by school officials, Ms. Redding denied having any knowledge of or involvement in bringing contraband to school.  With Ms. Redding’s permission, school officials then searched her backpack, which turned up nothing.  Two female school officials subsequently took Ms. Redding to a private room and ordered her to remove her outer clothing.  Ms. Redding was then ordered to pull both her bra and underwear aside and to shake them out to determine whether any contraband was hidden therein.  This search also turned up nothing.

On her daughter’s behalf, Ms. Redding’s mother sued the school district and several school officials in federal court.  Ms. Redding lost at the trial level and in front of a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But she won when the Ninth Circuit reheard the case with all circuit judges sitting. The school district then appealed to the Supreme Court, where the justices held 8-to-1 that the strip search had violated Ms. Redding’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches.  The majority held that the weak strength of the pills–each equivalent to two Advil–did not justify the use of an “embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating search.”

The lone voice of dissent, Justice Thomas would have ruled the strip search constitutional.  Justice Thomas admonished that the courts should be wary of interfering with the ability of school officials to manage their students and advocated that the courts adopt a more hands-off approach. However, whether the Redding decision will prevent school officials from conducting invasive searches when the alleged contraband is relatively more dangerous, such as cocaine, remains to be seen.

Perhaps another case involving more dangerous contraband will change the Court’s position in future. But for now the Redding decision will ensure that school officials do not have unlimited power to police their students’ bodies.

Aaron Midler is a second year law student at Chicago-Kent College of Law.  He received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Chicago, where he studied Psychology.  His interests lie in new technologies, environmental law, and intellectual property.

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